FRONT ROYAL – A jury gave a Warren County woman no jail time Wednesday after convicting her of failing to prevent the 2017 death of her child and injuries to his twin brother at the hands of her boyfriend.
But Tabitha Rose Zimmerman could still be sentenced to jail if she is found to have violated the terms of her supervised probation related to an earlier conviction on a drug charge in Fauquier County.
Jurors in Warren County Circuit Court found Zimmerman, 29, guilty on both counts of child endangerment at the conclusion of a three-day trial. The jury heard testimony from medical professionals, law-enforcement investigators, Zimmerman’s parents and the defendant. Jurors deliberated on the verdict for about three hours.
Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Layton prosecuted the case. John Bell represented Zimmerman. Judge Clifford L. Athey Jr. presided over the trial.
The jury could have sentenced Zimmerman on both charges to either one to five years in prison or up to 12 months in jail plus a fine of up to $2,500. At one point, the jury asked if the judge could sentence Zimmerman to time served – essentially the eight months she spent at Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail before her release on bond. Jurors also asked Athey if they could order Zimmerman to take parenting classes as part of her punishment. Athey advised the jury they must only decide punishment within the parameters provided.
After the trial, Athey allowed Bell 21 days to file a motion to set aside the jury’s verdict, should the attorney wish to do so. Layton would then have 21 days to file a response, and the court would hold a hearing on the defense motion in late June.
Outside the courtroom, Bell told reporters he would need to discuss any post-trial motions or actions he might take with his client before making a decision.
Zimmerman testified during the sentencing phase that she intended to get her life back on track once she finishes her sentence and work to regain a relationship with her surviving son.
Layton asked jurors to set Zimmerman’s punishment in the range for prison time. Bell told the jury his client already lost a child and asked the panel to fix a sentence within the range for jail time.
The prosecutor tried to prove that Zimmerman failed to prevent Chad Andrew Ritchie from killing her 22-month-old son Malakai and severely injuring the toddler’s twin brother on Nov. 8, 2017.
Bell argued that the prosecution’s witnesses and evidence first failed to show first, a pattern of abuse against the children and, second, that Zimmerman could have known her boyfriend would hurt or kill her sons.
Ritchie pleaded guilty the morning of the second day of his jury trial on Dec. 11 to second-degree murder for Malakai’s death, malicious wounding related to his brother’s injuries and two counts of child endangerment involving both boys. Athey sentenced Ritchie to 30 years with 20 years suspended for second-degree murder, 15 years with nine years suspended for malicious wounding, and five years with three years suspended for each count of child endangerment.
Ritchie testified for the prosecution as the writer of a statement in which he recalls the events of Nov. 8, 2017, leading up to the incident. In the statement entered into evidence, Ritchie recalls hitting the children but does not admit to killing Malakai.
Zimmerman testified on the second and third day of the trial, with Bell first questioning his client about her history of alcohol and drug abuse. Zimmerman admitted to the jury she had used alcohol, marijuana and opiates in the past; stole to pay for her habit and dealt drugs. Zimmerman admitted she served jail time for committing drug crimes. She also told the jury she lost custody of her daughter from a previous relationship as a result of her behavior.
Zimmerman explained that, before she met Ritchie, she became pregnant by a previous boyfriend who also used drugs and later died from an overdose. Zimmerman went to jail while pregnant, had the twins, then returned to finish her sentence, she said. But when she finished her time, Zimmerman recalled taking efforts to find work and to support her children.
Zimmerman said she met Ritchie when they both worked at Rubbermaid in Winchester, and they developed a relationship. They moved in together and he helped raise her children, she testified. But financial matters forced Zimmerman and Ritchie to move in with her parents in Warren County, she recalled. Zimmerman and her parents testified that the living arrangement was to be temporary and that she, Ritchie and the boys would move out by the end of December. Layton argued that Zimmerman and Ritchie were having problems in their relationship that created tension.
Layton argued in his closing statements that the prosecution’s evidence and testimony from its witnesses showed a pattern of abuse, given older bruises medical experts discovered during examinations of both boys and tension brewing between Zimmerman and Ritchie. Layton also tried to show that the couple kept the boys in a hazardous environment, entering into evidence containers of chemicals such as turpentine the children could access.
Bell, in his closing argument, told jurors Layton’s evidence did not show that a pattern of abuse had occurred leading up to the Nov. 8, 2017 incident. Medical experts could not determine how long before the incident the older bruising occurred, Bell noted, citing their testimony. Bell called Layton’s use of the chemical containers found in the basement “a red herring” because the cans showed no signs they had been opened and Zimmerman testified the door to the room in which the containers were found was kept closed.
Bell had planned to call one of the boys’ babysitters to testify on Zimmerman’s behalf but the attorney told the court the witness was in the hospital and unavailable. A similar situation occurred for the defense during the sentencing phase after Zimmerman testified. Athey asked Bell if he had any more witnesses to call. Bell said he had planned to call more witnesses but they were not available.