COLUMBIA — A judge should throw out an indictment against the mother of a missing South Carolina toddler because prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to prove their case and are only holding Zinah Jennings because she won’t tell them where her son is, the woman’s attorney said Thursday.
“You can’t weigh the rights of a defendant against the rights of a missing child,” Jennings’ attorney, Hemphill Pride II, said in court. “The entire holding of Zinah Jennings in this case is a mere pretext.”
Judge G. Thomas Cooper set a July trial date for Jennings, whose son, Amir, was 18 months old when he was last seen around Thanksgiving. Zinah Jennings’ mother reported her missing several weeks later, telling police she thought her daughter and grandson were in Atlanta but that she was receiving evasive answers when she asked about Amir.
Speaking to police after a Christmas Eve car wreck, Jennings first said she had no children and then said her son was with relatives and friends in cities from Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C. Investigators say they chased down Jennings’ stories in several states but arrested her after several dead ends.
Prosecutors said Amir’s blood was found on blankets in Jennings’ car. Agents have used cadaver dogs to search a wide rural area but found no sign of the boy.
Clad in a black and white jail outfit and visibly pregnant, Jennings, 23, was shackled at the ankles during Thursday’s hearing. Cooper allowed her handcuffs to be removed while she was in the courtroom.
She was indicted last month on a charge of unlawful conduct toward a child. On Thursday, Pride said prosecutors hadn’t included enough information in their indictment, like specific allegations about how Jennings had allegedly harmed her child, and asked that it be thrown out.
Pride also detailed the interrogation tactics used by police trying to elicit information from the young mother about her son’s whereabouts. According to the attorney, police used Jennings’ half-sister, a minister and even the love of a dog to try to get her to say where Amir was.
“’Zinah, baby, I want to pray with you,’” Pride said, paraphrasing the minister’s interaction with his client. “And then at the end of the prayer says, ‘Where’s the baby?’”
During all of those initial conversations, and in ones since, Jennings has consistently refused to discuss Amir’s whereabouts, saying only that he is safe, Pride said.
“The case should be dismissed,” Pride said. “You don’t hold people in order to make someone tell you where a child is.”
Cooper gave prosecutors until Monday to respond in writing to Pride’s arguments. On Thursday, prosecutor Dolly Justice Garfield said that she felt confident in the case against Jennings.
“We are charging her with abandoning the child,” Garfield said. “It would be a travesty to abandon the indictment when South Carolina law provides exactly what is reflected.”
Cooper also ordered that Jennings be evaluated to see if she is competent to stand trial. She has already received one evaluation, which found that she has schizophrenia. Jennings was prescribed Risperdal, but Pride has said he fears that the drug is harmful to his client’s unborn baby, due to be born in August.
Since last week, Jennings has been held in solitary confinement after a confrontation with a jailhouse nurse.