Woman may get up to 60 years for child’s death

WOODSTOCK — A local woman pleaded guilty Thursday in Shenandoah County Circuit Court to first-degree murder in the death of a 20-month old child she had been caring for at her apartment.

Nicole Dawn Miller, 27, faces a possible active prison sentence of up to 60 years when she appears at a sentencing hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. Jan. 22.

Judge Dennis L. Hupp accepted the plea agreement between Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda McDonald Wiseley and Miller’s defense attorneys, John C. Holloran and William Elridge IV of Harrisonburg.

Miller was originally charged with capital murder, which raised the possibility that she would be sentenced to death if she had been convicted at a jury trial set for late January. Miller entered an Alford plea Thursday, which allows a defendant to insist she is not guilty of a crime, but also acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to obtain a conviction.

Wiseley, who had been seeking the death penalty, told Hupp she chose to agree to a lesser charge of murder after considering several factors that left her believing “there was only a slim chance we would get the death penalty in this case.”

Miller admitted for the first time Thursday that she struck the blow that led to the death of Talon Vermillion two days later at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville.

Wiseley told Hupp of evidence she had planned to introduce at the now-canceled trial.

She said Woodstock police officer Joshua Wilberger went to Miller’s apartment at 135 Valley Vista Drive in the late afternoon of June 3 after Miller had placed a 911 call.

Miller opened the door after Wilberger knocked. Wiseley said Miller had the victim, Talon Vermillion, in her arms with his head off to one side. Court documents identify Talon Vermillion as the son of Jeremy Vermillion, Miller’s fiancée at the time.

Jeremy Vermillion was at work at the time of the incident, and Miller was the only adult in the apartment.

Wiseley said Wilberger entered the apartment, and took Talon Vermillion from Miller after the defendant said, “Take him.”

Wilberger placed the child on the floor.

“The officer did not feel or hear any breathing nor [did] he see the chest rising and falling,” Wiseley said.

Wilberger also noticed marks on the child’s face, Wiseley said.

An ambulance took the child to Shenandoah Memorial Hospital, where medical staff suspected he was suffering from physical abuse. Talon Vermillion was airlifted to the University of Virginia Hospital. He was pronounced dead two days later.

Autopsy results issued early this year concluded that Talon Vermillion was the victim of a homicide and died of blunt force trauma to the head, neck and trunk.

Wisely told Hupp that the autopsy report showed that Talon Vermillion had suffered “an indeterminate number of impact sites on the head.”

Miller, under questioning by police in the hours after the incident, insisted that the victim had either accidentally fallen off the bed or been pushed by her biological son, who was 18 months old at the time.

“Finally, she did admit to striking Talon after she had been Mirandized,” Wiseley said of Miller.

Wiseley also recited text messages law enforcement officials found on Miller’s cell phone. Wiseley argued that the messages proved the killing was premediated.

One message on May 28 from Miller to a friend stated: “LOL. Yeah, I don’t want Talon.”

Miller also stated by text message that she used to love Talon Vermillion like one of her own children “but I can’t now, and I don’t want him around.”

A June 5 text message by Miller about Talon Vermillion expressed similar sentiments: “I don’t care any more. I am done with him.”

Holloran did not contest any details of Wiseley’s version of events.

“Judge, there isn’t any disagreement at this point in time with the commonwealth’s evidence,” Holloran told Hupp.

But both sides served notice that the sentencing hearing could be long, as much as two days.

Holloran told Hupp he would have tried to persuade a jury to convict Miller on a second-degree murder charge that carries a lighter sentence than capital murder or first-degree murder.

The plea agreement’s provision of a sentence running from 30 to 60 years in prison is more compressed than the sentencing range in state law, which calls for 20 years to life imprisonment for first-degree murder.

Wiseley cited several reasons for deciding not to press for the death penalty. She said Miller was a young woman with no criminal record, a less than perfect mental health history, and four biological children.

If Miller had been sentenced to death, she would have been the 54th woman in the United States to be executed in the United States since 1903 and only the third in Virginia since 1912, according to data from the non-profit Death Penalty Information Center.

Wiseley said she had prepared subpoenas for more than 90 witnesses for the trial, which was scheduled to run at least 10 days.

“The commonwealth has to be realistic as to whether the jury would impose death,” Wiseley said.

Wiseley said she met with Talon Vermillion’s family, and they approved of the range of sentencing in the plea agreement. The agreement also contains a provision that prevents Miller from appealing the outcome of the sentencing.

Talon Vermillion’s grandparents and a family friend were among those seated in the courtroom. The victim’s biological father and mother were not present.

Holloran said Miller was accepting the plea agreement to avoid the risk of the death penalty. The agreement also contains a provision that prevents Miller from appealing the outcome of the sentencing.

“She does acknowledge inflicting the fatal blow,” Holloran said, adding that Miller disagreed that the act was premeditated.

Hupp said the plea agreement did not reflect his own opinion about whether Miller should receive the death penalty.

“Do the terms of the plea agreement allow the court to do justice in this case?” Hupp asked. “I believe it does, and I accept the agreement.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com