A jury was selected late Monday in the case of a 23-year-old Columbia mother who police say has lied about the whereabouts of her missing toddler.
The jury of eight women and four men, along with four alternates, will be sworn in this morning in the trial of Zinah Jennings. Opening arguments will follow on the second floor of the Richland County courthouse.
Jennings is charged with unlawful conduct toward a child. Her son, Amir, who would now be 2 years old, was last seen just after Thanksgiving. Police say Jennings has given conflicting stories about his whereabouts.
An unusual situation could complicate the unfolding of the trial.
Jennings is almost nine months pregnant, due to deliver a second baby in early September. However, due to the dozens of witnesses who may testify, the trial could still be going when Jennings has her baby.
Monday, prosecution lawyers – who will put up their case first – said they have about 40 potential witnesses for the state, including police investigators, FBI agents and SLED agents.
Defense attorneys said they have some 15 potential witnesses.
The issue of Jennings’ possibly having a baby was not addressed in open court Monday. Prosecution and defense lawyers declined to discuss the issue.
Earlier in the day, Circuit Judge Knox McMahon declared that Jennings is mentally fit for trial.
“I find that Ms. Zinah Jennings is competent to stand trial,” McMahon ruled shortly after noon.
He made his competency ruling after hearing testimony from Kimberly Harrison, chief psychologist at the S.C. Department of Mental Health. Harrison testified she conducted an in-depth interview with Jennings in June and another interview Monday morning.
In both sessions, she said, Jennings appeared mentally fit and fully able to participate in her defense.
Jennings’ lawyer, Hemphill Pride of Columbia, did not contest Harrison’s finding.
Jennings has been jailed since December under $150,000 bond while police investigated her son’s disappearance.
In December, after she was involved in a Christmas Eve car crash in downtown Columbia, Jennings first told medical personnel she had no children. She later told police Amir, then 18 months old, was with a relative.
Monday, Jennings rarely spoke during court proceedings. Sitting at the defense table with her lawyers, Pride and Lesli Darwin, she kept her eyes forward nearly all the time.
Family members have said that she was a good student with a once-bright future when she began to suffer bouts of mental illness, aggravated by alleged problem drinking and marijuana.