A mother whose 15-month-old son was killed in Union County floodwaters during Hurricane Florence was charged with involuntary manslaughter in the weeks after the storm, but she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of misdemeanor death by vehicle Monday afternoon.
Union County courthouse bailiffs pressed tissues into the hands of Dazia Ideah Lee, 20, and her grandmother as lawyers described the events surrounding Kaiden Lee Welch’s death in September.
Lee was driving across a bridge over Richardson Creek when her car was swept off the road, officials said last fall. There were barricades in the area, but she told The Washington Post and other news outlets that she continued driving after she saw other drivers doing so.
In the flood, Lee escaped from her seat and managed to get Kaiden out of his car seat, the Observer reported in September, but she lost her grip on her son as she tried to move them both to safety. Her lawyer Dan Roberts said Lee did not know how to swim.
When rescuers got to Lee, she was standing on the highest point of her car — the trunk, Roberts said. The car was vertical and nose-down with floodwaters rising above the back wheels, he said.
Roberts and Union County assistant district attorney Mary Beth Usher each said that Lee was upset when rescuers found her.
“We have no reason to believe that, once she and her son were imperiled, she did not make every effort to save him,” Usher said.
Lee has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in connection with the incident, Roberts said.
“No punishment this court could give her will equal the punishment she’s already experiencing,” he said.
Judge Tripp Helms told Lee she would not serve jail time if she continued working with a mental health counselor, paid court costs and avoided driving unless her license is restored.
Helms said he would not fine Lee.
“I think that it would be some kind of moral obscenity to be setting a dollar value on the offense,” he said.
Roberts said Lee, who has kept the job she had prior to the hurricane, will be able to begin the healing process now that the legal process is resolved.
Kaiden was her only child, he said.