As a result of an unexpected negotiation, the felony murder trial against a Fayette County man has ended in a plea to lesser charges.
On Tuesday morning, before calling in the jury, Superior Court Judge Christopher Edwards announced that their had been a negotiated plea deal in the case of Jamal Rashad Thomas. Assistant district attorney Warren Sellers said that Thomas had caused the death of his nine-week old son Zaiyre by shaking him too hard in an effort to get him to stop crying. He was facing two counts of felony murder, aggravated assault and two counts of cruelty to children when the trial began last week.
According to Thomas’ attorneys, Jason Sheffield and Robert Runin, the facts just don’t fit the claim of shaken baby syndrome. Due to his premature birth, defense attorney Jason Sheffield pointed out that the baby already suffered from breathing problems and other medical issues and that Zaiyre death was caused by a blood clot.
Last week, jurors listened to a parade of expert witnesses, with no two agreeing on the actual cause of death for the infant.
When court resumed on Tuesday, the plea agreement had Thomas pleading guilty to one count of cruelty to children in the second degree and receiving first offender status. Edwards sentenced Thomas to five years, with one year to serve. That one year was commuted due to previous jail time and trial time. With the agreement, Thomas would not be serving any jail time and the jury was dismissed.
Edwards reminded Thomas that the status was a two-edged sword. If, even after three years of probation, he’s charged with another felony, he will have to complete the remainder of the term in prison. As a provision of his probation, at any time Thomas, his premises and property can be searched on demand. Additionally, he cannot have any violent contact with any child under 18 years of age and cannot be left alone as the primary caretaker of a child under the age of two.
According to Rubin and Sheffield, the defense, the prosecution approached them with the plea deal which they then presented to their client who agreed that this deal presented the best possible outcome, given the fact that juries are unpredictable.
“We have mixed feelings about it,” said Sheffield. “We’re very passionate about the evidence, and our contention that he didn’t violently shake his baby and that he is innocent.”
Sheffield added the defense was prepared to offer overwhelming evidence in the way of expert witnesses to prove his innocence.
“However when the state makes a concession as large as the concession the state in this case, you have to stop and consider the option. For Jamal, it’s an option that brings with it no risk of life in prison and that makes it an important consideration.”
“There were a lot of considerations. The stress of continuing the trial, understanding that at the end of the day he was eliminating all the risk of prison time, not going to have a record because he’s under the first offender act and he doesn’t have to admit he did it.
“He’s basically saying I’m not guilty but I’m going to plead guilt because I dont’ want to go on with the trial. Those factors made it palatable to him,” Rubin added.
First offender status is not a conviction, according to Sheffield.
“The term is adjudication is withheld. He expresses his desire for the plea and the judge doesn’t make a finding that he’s guilty. At end of the four years, the charge is dismissed.”
Rubin also noted that the “only reason we got this from the state is that it is a pretty big concession. By making the offer you know they’re saying they would have had a pretty difficult time convicting Jamal of any of the murder charges.”
The Thomas family, Rubin said, was pretty happy with the outcome though they would have liked to see him walk out with an acquittal.
“It’s not as final or as satisfying as an acquittal,” added Sheffield.
“The best part is that he is walking out of here,” Rubin noted.
“Rarely do we have this option,” said Sheffield. “We’re happy to have had this choice.”
He also noted that they were happy to work out the issue of whether or not this case really had a confession.
“It’s our opinion that it became very clear, that the state’s characterization of a confession was completely wrong. That Jamal spoke about how he tried to care for his baby and how those words were twisted and carried to doctors.”
Detective Wendy Mulder testified that Thomas, while standing next to his child’s bed in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, said “this shouldn’t have happened.”
“This father, while watching his child hooked up to tubes and monitors and machines, was sorry he had to go through this. It should not in anyway be interpreted as he violently shook the baby,” said Rubin.
“And it was wrong for the detective to tell him,” added Sheffield. “Then you compound the problem when you convey that to the doctor. His diagnosis was based solely based on the confession. Without that confession he doesn’t have a shaking.”
Sellers said he based his decision to offer the plea based on the evidence as he assessed it after hearing all of it.
“As the week progressed I thought it would be difficult to convince all 12 people, 12 people unanimously,” said Sellers. “I’m satisfied with the outcome.”