COLUMBIA — The grandmother of a missing South Carolina toddler expressed worry and confusion about the boy’s whereabouts during jailhouse phone calls with her daughter, saying she believed police thought the boy was dead but had faith in her daughter’s innocence, according to recordings played in court Wednesday.
“They’re looking in woods,” Jocelyn Jennings Nelson told her daughter, according to the calls played by prosecutors. “They’re looking for him to be dead. ... I don’t want to believe that you would take your son’s life.”
Nelson’s daughter, Zinah Jennings, is on trial this week on a charge of unlawful conduct toward a child. Jennings’ son, Amir, was 18 months old when he was last seen around Thanksgiving, and his mother has refused to tell police where he is.
During a lengthy interview with police, Jennings told investigators that she left the boy somewhere safe but would not elaborate. In the phone calls, Nelson pleads with her daughter to come clean with police and then she can be released from jail.
“Where is Amir?” Nelson asked. “You don’t’ have to be in there if you would just say where your son is.”
“I’ve told you where he is,” Jennings said.
“So are you saying you can’t do that?” Nelson said.
“They have to do their job,” Jennings said of police.
Prosecutors called 40 witnesses and rested their case Wednesday. Defense attorneys called several witnesses who said they last saw the mother and son together at times from spring to summer 2011 and that the boy was always clean, well-dressed and happy.
Jennings’ mother also testified Wednesday for her daughter, describing her daughter as a good high school student involved in extracurricular activities like choir and basketball. But Nelson said her relationship with her daughter became strained after the girl returned from her freshman year.
Nelson described being angry when her daughter said she was pregnant but said that feeling was mollified by a baby shower and, ultimately, the boy’s birth. Nelson frequently babysat her grandson but said she ultimately convinced her daughter to move back into her home and enroll Amir in day care nearby.
But as the months wore on, Nelson said her relationship with her daughter became difficult. The night of Nov. 27, 2011, Nelson said she snuggled her grandson into bed, watched a movie and turned off the light.
“I got up the next morning, I got dressed and went to work, and that was the last time that I saw him,” Nelson said.
Late at night, just over a week later, Nelson said her daughter came home without her son. Receiving no response when asking about Amir, Nelson said she decided to involve the authorities the next day.
“Once I got to work, I called 911,” Nelson said. “I reported Amir missing because Zinah wouldn’t tell me where he was. ... I felt that Zinah was trying to hurt me, and I wanted to know where the baby was.”
Nelson also said she never feared her son would hurt the boy but disagreed over parenting styles.
“She didn’t really want my help at all,” Nelson said. “She tried to do things on her own.”
On Tuesday, a police officer read from a transcript of Jennings’ two-hour interrogation by police.
“Prove to me your child is alive,” police Sgt. Arthur Thomas says.
“I can’t,” Jennings replied, according to the transcript.
Prosecutors called several witnesses who testified that they thought Jennings was overwhelmed by the stress of parenting. 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.”
One high school friend said that 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 also testified that he wanted to play more of a role in his son’s life but Jennings wouldn’t let him.