A few months before Columbia toddler Amir Jennings disappeared, his mother told a friend she sometimes thought about selling him, giving him away or throwing him out the window of a car, a witness testified Wednesday.
“I thought she was just stressed out,” said Christian Dickerson, 23, a friend of Zinah Jennings since their days at Hand Middle School.
In early September last year, Dickerson testified, Zinah Jennings came over to her house without Amir, who was in day care at the time.
“She told me she thought about getting in a car and just keeping on going,” Dickerson testified under questioning from assistant 5th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Meghan Walker.
“She actually said something about giving him away,” Dickerson added.
Dickerson’s testimony came on the second day of the trial of Zinah Jennings, charged with unlawful conduct toward a child in the case of her missing son, Amir. He was last seen Nov. 29, and Zinah Jennings has given conflicting and false stories about his whereabouts, prosecutors say. He was 18 months old when he went missing. She could get 10 years in prison if found guilty.
Dickerson, one of 21 witnesses who have testified so far for the prosecution, said Jennings had told her it was just “overwhelming” to have to care for a young child.
Dickerson said she urged Jennings to remember that she was a mother now.
On another occasion, also in early September, Zinah Jennings was visiting Dickerson’s house with Amir, she testified, adding he was “kind of bubbly, all he wanted to do was play.”
“She (Zinah Jennings) set him on the floor and she kicked him and told him to go play,” Dickerson testified. When Amir didn’t move, Zinah Jennings kicked him again, Dickerson testified.
Other witnesses Wednesday underscored what prosecutors describe as a marked lack of concern by Zinah Jennings for Amir’s welfare.
Former S.C. Credit Union teller Kristen Knight, testified that on Nov. 29 that Zinah Jennings – who was withdrawing money – was so unaware of Amir’s presence in the bank that the toddler actually almost ran outside through the Credit Union’s front double doors. Moreover, Knight and another former teller, Ashleigh Burnett, testified that on occasions when Zinah Jennings used the drive-in teller’s window, they could see that Amir was not buckled in to a safety seat.
Adrienne Alston, 23, and her boyfriend, Troy Clark, testified that Zinah Jennings last fall left Amir asleep in her car when she came in for a visit.
Clark testified he was so concerned, he went outside to see how Amir was and found the car’s window’s rolled up on a “kind of hot” day. “I checked to see if he was still breathing,” Clark testified. Amir was OK, he testified.
Jessica Thomas, a longtime friend of Zinah Jennings, testified that Jennings forcefully squeezed Amir’s hand last fall so hard he cried when she was trying to get him to say “Mamma.” Jennings also hit her preschool nephew and cursed him, Thomas testified.
Columbia police officer Eric Walker testified that when he stopped Zinah Jennings for running a red light last fall, Amir was in the car’s front seat and not in a legal child safety seat.
Jennings’ defense attorney, Hemphill Pride, tried to blunt the worst of the testimony by getting nearly all the witnesses to acknowledge that when they saw Amir, he appeared happy, clean, well-groomed and well dressed.
Also taking the stand Wednesday was Roderick Mitchell, 29, Amir’s biological father. He testified that at first he saw his son frequently, but as time went on, he and the child’s mother broke up and she kept him from seeing Amir.
“Zinah wouldn’t let me have contact with him,” he said.
“Did you want to be a part of his life?” Walker asked him.
“Yes,” replied Mitchell, a chef at Columbia’s Hunter-Gatherer Brewery & Alehouse.
The last time he saw Amir was Nov. 29, Mitchell testified, when he was supposed to spend time with the boy because he had that day off. But when he arrived to pick up Amir, Zinah said she had other plans for him. “I gave him a hug and a kiss and left,” Mitchell testified.
Up until now, the prosecution has relied mostly on witnesses who knew Zinah Jennings. But prosecutors Luck Campbell, Dolly Justice Garfield and Walker on Wednesday also began presenting witnesses whose testimony will bring into a play a wide range of technological evidence.
This evidence, witnesses testified, will include FBI Special Agent’s Michael Sutton’s analysis of Sprint cell phone records to pinpoint Zinah Jennings’ location on certain key dates, surveillance videos from various Columbia banks and food establishments to show Jennings both with and without Amir, and information from places where Jennings used Electronic Benefits Transfer – a government-issued debit card used as food stamps.
The trial before Judge Knox McMahon moves into its third day of testimony today at the Richland County courthouse.