COLUMBIA, S.C. — Nearly 10 months after her 18-month-old son was last seen, a South Carolina woman was convicted Friday of unlawful conduct for refusing to tell authorities where he might be, just insisting that he is safe.
Zinah Jennings, 23, showed no emotion as the verdict was read. The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for about 2 1/2 hours before issuing its decision, and a judge sentenced Jennings to the maximum of 10 years in prison. Jennings has been jailed on no bail since her arrest.
The last time Jennings' son, Amir, was seen was November, when a security video at a Columbia bank recorded them both.
Police say Jennings repeatedly lied to them about where the boy is, telling false tales that led them to search places from Atlanta to Charlotte, N.C.
Jennings, who did not testify in her defense, has said she left the boy somewhere safe but wouldn't give details when questioned by police. Prosecutors played a lengthy police interview in which Jennings cried as she said her son was safe but that she couldn't prove to detectives that the boy was alive.
Investigators have found Amir's blood on baby blankets retrieved from Jennings' car but no other trace of the boy.
Some of the dozens of prosecution witnesses testified during the two-week trial that Jennings — who gave birth to a second child last week — said she was overwhelmed by the stresses of parenting an active, energetic boy and needed a break. One friend said Jennings told her she pondered selling or giving away Amir and even mentioned throwing him out the window of a moving car.
Other prosecution witnesses testified that they saw Jennings kick Amir when he misbehaved or squeeze his hand when he wouldn't say "mama." Employees at the bank where the video came from testified that Amir was often not in a car seat when his mother pulled up at a drive-thru window.
Jennings' mother, though, said that, while she and her strong-willed daughter butted heads when it came to parenting styles, she doesn't believe her daughter would have ever harmed Amir. Before sentencing, Jocelyn Jennings Nelson also said she thought her daughter had suffered from post-partum depression and that she tried to find counseling for her after Amir's birth.
"She didn't understand what her body was going through and the impact motherhood was having on her," Nelson told the judge. "At this point, Amir could be anywhere. ... I will never stop looking for him."
It was unclear exactly who would care for Jennings' baby girl, though her mother has said she'd be willing to do that. Judge Knox McMahon said that Jennings would get the needed medical care.
In pronouncing sentence, McMahon made it clear that his thoughts were with the boy.
"I also do not know where Amir Jennings is. ... I know where his blanket is. I know where his blood is," McMahon said. "There's one innocent person, one blameless person, one person that cannot fend for himself in the world we live in, and that's Amir Jennings."
McMahon also recommended that Jennings receive counseling and ruled that she be credited with the nine months she has already served in jail.
Prosecutors and Jennings' other family members opted not to speak with reporters. Her defense attorney said he would consult with Jennings and her family before considering filing an appeal.
Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP
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