Jennings trial

Detective to Zinah Jennings: ‘You’re not answering. Is he OK?’

Testimony focuses on police interview after Amir disappeared

jmonk@thestate.comAugust 29, 2012 

The mother of a missing Columbia toddler repeatedly refused to tell police detectives where her son was during an interview with police roughly one month after he was reported missing.

Details of that 21/2-hour taped interview Dec. 30 came out during testimony Tuesday in the trial of 23-year-old Zinah Jennings. Her son, Amir, has not been seen since just after Thanksgiving, when he was 18 months old. She is charged with unlawful conduct toward a child.

“Is the baby OK? Is he OK? ...You are not answering. Is he OK?” city police Sgt. Arthur Thomas is heard asking Jennings during the interrogation.

At another point, Thomas — who begged, pleaded and cajoled Jennings — said, “I got to make sure he is not lying dead somewhere ... I have to lay eyes on him. Like I’m laying eyes on you.”

Thomas’ statements and Jennings’ replies were played for the Richland County jury of eight women and four men Tuesday afternoon.

On the tape, Jennings tells Thomas Amir is in a safe place, but it would be too stressful for her to see him.

Thomas begged her to show him the residence where Amir was living.

“You don’t have to see him. You can stay in the car. ... you don’t have to go to the door. You don’t have to be seen,” Thomas said.

At the end of the session, with no answers on Amir’s whereabouts, Thomas and police investigator Colin Bailey arrested Jennings on the unlawful conduct charge.

In cross-examination by defense lawyer Hemphill Pride, he asked Thomas questions aimed at showing it’s possible that Amir is alive and being well cared for, and that police had no actual evidence to the contrary.

“Did you have any facts that would support a charge of abandonment?” Pride asked Thomas.

Under questioning, Thomas testified, “If she does not communicate and at no point checks on the welfare of the child, that is abandonment … The crux of this case is you have an 18-month-old child missing and we have no earthly idea of where the child is.”

Thomas also testified that Jennings had given false statements about Amir’s whereabouts, including that a friend named Ernest Robinson was caring for him.

But there is no Ernest Robinson, Thomas testified.

Thomas was the fifth and final witness prosecutors Dolly Justice Garfield and Luck Campbell put up Tuesday.

In opening statements to jurors earlier in the day, prosecution and defense lawyers exchanged starkly different versions of the case.

“It is our job to prove to you Ms. Jennings is guilty of abandoning Amir Jennings,” Garfield told the jury.

“It is not your job to forgive Ms. Jennings or try to figure out why she did what she did,” she added.

Pride, his arms crossed, told the jury that the state has no case at all.

“Just because a mother won’t tell the state where her child is, that doesn’t constitute abandoning a child,” Pride told jurors.

“If the state doesn’t have the facts,” he added, “then they don’t have a case.”

Unlawful conduct toward a child is a felony that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence upon conviction. The charge includes not only doing harm to a child, but also abandoning a child.

In early December, Amir’s grandmother, Jocelyn Jennings, filed a missing persons report with Columbia police, saying both Amir and Zinah Jennings were missing.

On Dec. 24, Zinah Jennings was involved in a single-car accident in downtown Columbia. It was then that police officer Christon Miller, who entered her car tag in a national database, discovered that she and Amir were listed as missing.

Zinah Jennings proceeded to give conflicting statements to nurses and police about where Amir was. Police arrested her Dec. 30, and she has been in jail since, awaiting trial.

Testimony will resume at 9 a.m. today with Roderick Mitchell, Amir’s biological father, expected to take the stand.

The trial before Judge Knox McMahon is expected to feature more than 50 witnesses.

Other witnesses who testified Tuesday included Robin Ward and Keyonia Johnson, two registered nurses at the Palmetto Health Richland hospital emergency room who treated Zinah Jennings after her traffic incident. Columbia police chief Randy Scott and officer Miller, who worked the traffic crash, testified Jennings smelled of alcohol. According to prosecution and defense attorneys, Jennings had a history of mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse.

Reach Monk at (80-3) 771-8344.

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