Judge keeps murder trial in county for now

Chad Ritchie

FRONT ROYAL – The trial for a man accused of killing his girlfriend’s young child and wounding another must stay in Warren County for now.

Chad Andrew Ritchie appeared in Warren County Circuit Court on Wednesday for a hearing on motions filed by his attorney, Jason Ransom.

Ritchie, 28, of 908 Blue Mountain Road, faces trial in June on charges of second-degree murder for the death of Tabitha Rose Zimmerman’s 22-month-old son and malicious wounding involving the child’s twin brother. Ritchie also stands charged with two counts of felony child cruelty.

Zimmerman is charged with two counts of felony child cruelty for what authorities claim was a failure to keep her sons out of harm.

Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. denied Ransom’s motion for change of venue but commented that the attorney could renew the request closer to the June 19 trial date. Ransom argued that the heightened publicity generated by the case and the subsequent media coverage influenced the potential jury pool in Warren County.

Tabitha Zimmerman

Ransom provided dozens of comments posted online by readers reacting to media reports on the case. As a result, Ransom argued, the court could not seat a fair and impartial jury. Ransom suggested the court move the trial to Fairfax County.

In his argument, Ransom said that newspaper articles written about the case, while not inaccurate, did not include all information such as testimony given at the preliminary hearing held prior to the defendants’ indictments on the charges. Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton argued that not all information is usually available to the media until a case goes to trial.

Athey responded by pointing out that a question usually asked of potential jurors during the selection process at trial is not only if they read or saw media reports about the case but if that would render them unable to serve as a fair and impartial juror. At that stage of the trial, should the court fail to find enough fair and impartial jurors for a complete panel, Athey said parties might revisit the change of venue motion.

Ransom argued in the motion that Warren County’s population of about 39,000 affects the potential jury pool. Athey responded by noting that Warren County’s population, while not as large as Fairfax County, falls somewhere in the middle in terms of size among Virginia localities.

Ransom also argued in his motion that only three months remain between now and the trial to prepare for Ritchie’s defense. Athey pointed out that the defendant was charged seven months ago, leaving the defense sufficient time to prepare.

Athey also denied Ransom’s motion to sever his client’s case from Zimmerman, who is represented by John Bell. At the same time, Athey granted Layton’s motion to join the cases of the two defendants. Athey sided with the prosecutor who argued that the cases are related to the same set of occurrences. Ransom had pointed out that while both defendants are charged with child cruelty, Ritchie faces the additional, more serious charges of second-degree murder and malicious wounding. Joining the cases would put Ritchie in an unfair position, Ransom argued.

Ritchie and Zimmerman remain held without bond at Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail.