COLUMBIA — Just four days after giving birth to a second child, a South Carolina mother was back in court Tuesday in the case of her missing son.
Prosecutors continued presenting their case against Zinah Jennings, the 23-year-old Columbia mother charged with unlawful neglect toward a child. Jennings’ trial began last week, and defense attorneys are expected to soon begin putting up their case.
Amir Jennings was 18 months old when he was last seen around Thanksgiving. His mother has refused to tell police where he is but has said she left him somewhere safe.
Jennings gave birth to a girl early Friday. Circuit Judge Knox McMahon rejected a request for a mistrial by Jennings’ attorney but said he would take more frequent breaks to give her time to rest and recuperate from childbirth.
One of the officers who interrogated Jennings after her December arrest testified about executing search warrants on her car, cellphone and mother’s home. Assistant Solicitor Luck Campbell held up a shovel that police found at the house, in addition to the boy’s Social Security card and birth certificate, both of which were found in the room he shared with his mother.
Investigator Colin Bailey also told jurors that Jennings’ mother told police that her daughter and grandson had been with a half-sister in Georgia throughout fall 2011 before returning to Columbia.
At one point during the investigation, Jennings told police that her son was still in Atlanta, but officers there could find no trace of the boy.
“She did not tell us where he was, what state he was in, what family member or friend she had left the child with,” Bailey said of the interrogation. “She did not give us any concrete information.”
Police traced Jennings’ food-stamp card and collected surveillance video from businesses she frequented but never saw the boy on video after a stop at a bank in late November.
“When Zinah told us that Amir was in a safe place, that was a lie,” Bailey said. He said no one is collecting benefits under the boy’s name or Social Security number.
Bailey read from the transcript of an interview with Jennings after her arrest. In the two-hour interview, which was played in court last week, Jennings began to cry when asked about where she dropped off her son.
“I can’t see your eyes, but you’re shaking your head no,” Sgt. Arthur Thomas says to Jennings. “And you’re crying.”
“I’m sorry,” Jennings responds.
“Then prove to me your child is alive,” Thomas says.
“I can’t,” Jennings replies, according to the transcript.
Jennings told officers she would never hurt her son, according to the interview transcript. Last week, a friend testified that she had seen Jennings kick her son. Another witness said she saw Jennings squeeze the boy’s hand when he wouldn’t say “mama.”
Those women were two of the dozens of witnesses prosecutors put of last week, many of whom testified that Jennings felt overwhelmed by the responsibilities of parenting. One high school friend said the young mother told her she often pondered selling or giving away her son to alleviate the stress, or even throwing him out a window.
The boy’s father testified that he wanted to play more of a role in his son’s life but that Jennings wouldn’t let him. Several relatives and friends said they would have helped Jennings care for the boy if she had asked.
Prosecutors asked the judge to let them introduce evidence about cadaver dogs, which were used to search Jennings’ car, her mother’s home and a sprawling area near Columbia. Last month, McMahon ruled that evidence related to the dogs was relevant to the case but cannot be introduced at trial, a decision he upheld Tuesday.
McMahon has also already ruled that evidence about Amir’s bloodstains being found on items in Jennings’ car can be introduced at trial.
Jennings has been jailed since December. She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.