A Virginia mother held liable for her 6-year-old son’s shooting of his elementary school teacher this year was handed a two-year sentence Friday on a state charge of felony child neglect.
Deja Taylor, 26, could have faced as many as five years in prison but was given a shorter sentence by Circuit Court Judge Christopher Papile that includes two years of probation. Still, the judge’s punishment was harsher than the six months behind bars suggested by prosecutors, who as part of a plea deal dropped a misdemeanor charge of reckless storage of a firearm.
Taylor must begin her state sentence after she finishes serving 21 months on a related federal charge. She pleaded guilty in June to a charge of using marijuana while owning a gun, which is illegal under federal law, and was sentenced last month.
In addition, the mother is not allowed to have contact with her son, who’s now 7, until he turns 18, reported NBC affiliate WAVY in Portsmouth.
Friday’s hearing winds down one aspect of the case, which stunned the city of Newport News, drew national attention to school safety and gun violence and prompted the ouster of the school’s superintendent and an assistant principal.
Authorities say first-grade teacher Abigail Zwerner was intentionally shot on Jan. 6 by one of her students at Richneck Elementary School, where she escorted her panicked class to safety. A bullet ripped through Zwerner’s left hand, rupturing bones before it lodged in her upper chest, leaving behind fragments. Three months after the classroom shooting, she filed a $40 million lawsuit against the school district claiming administrators failed to listen to multiple warnings from staff and students that the child had a handgun.
Zwerner, 26, attended Friday’s sentencing and read a victim impact statement, her law firm said.
She has said she suffers from anxiety and depression as a result of the shooting, and no longer wants to teach.
“The kindness of people close to me, and from those in far places I’ve never met, is proof that there is good in the world, and I will cling to that idea,” Zwerner said in the statement. “Still, sadly, my life will never be close to the same again.”
More on Virginia teacher shooting
On the morning of the shooting, Taylor believed the gun was in her purse with the trigger lock installed and left on top of her bedroom dresser, according to a probable cause statement. She added that the key for the lock is kept under her bedroom mattress.
Marijuana was found during a court-ordered search of the home in the wake of the shooting, federal prosecutors said.
“A search of Taylor’s phone revealed numerous text messages illustrating the pervasive scope of Taylor’s marijuana use,” according to prosecutors, who also searched Taylor’s mother’s home. Meanwhile, “a lockbox was not found in either of the residences, nor was a trigger lock or key to a trigger lock ever found.”
As part of a care plan at the school, the boy’s parents were supposed to be with him daily, but were absent on the day of the shooting, officials said.
The child’s family has said that he has an “acute disability” and that he had received the “treatment he needs” under a court-ordered temporary detention at a medical facility.
In a sentencing memo on the federal drug charge, prosecutors offered new details in the family’s home life, including that the boy had twice stolen car keys from Taylor’s purse, even crashing her vehicle on one occasion. In addition, Taylor apparently fired her gun about a month before the shooting at Richneck in an argument over whether her son’s father was cheating with another woman, according to text messages obtained by prosecutors.
James Ellenson, a lawyer for the family, has said the boy has been under the care of a great-grandfather, Calvin Taylor.
In a letter in support of Deja Taylor ahead of her sentencing in federal court, Calvin Taylor wrote that she is undergoing therapy and substance abuse counseling and continues to “feel horribly” with “great remorse.”
“Deja is and was a victim of abuse and domestic violence,” Calvin Taylor wrote. “No matter what the results of these circumstances are, Deja has shown resilience and the willpower to build a future for not only herself, but her son as well.”
But Calvin Taylor said Friday he was disappointed in the sentencing decision on the state charge.
“I think the sentence is not going to fix the problem,” Calvin Taylor told WAVY, adding, “Sitting in a state prison or a federal prison for additional time is not going to fix the problem.”
The Newport News Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office said in March that Deja Taylor’s son would not face charges given that a child that young wouldn’t have the competency to understand the legal system or adequately assist an attorney.