NEWPORT NEWS, Va. – The mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in Virginia pleaded guilty Tuesday to a charge of felony child neglect, seven months after her son used her handgun to critically wound the educator in a classroom full of students.
Prosecutors agreed to drop a misdemeanor charge of reckless storage of a firearm against Deja Taylor. As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors said they will not seek a sentence that is longer than state sentencing guidelines, which call for six months in jail or prison.
The crime is punishable by up to five years in prison. A judge will have full discretion when he ultimately decides the length of Taylor's sentence. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for Oct. 27.
The January shooting shocked the nation and roiled this shipbuilding city near the Chesapeake Bay. The case against Taylor is one of three legal efforts seeking accountability, including the teacher’s $40 million lawsuit that accuses the school system of gross negligence for failing to respond aggressively to multiple warnings the child had brought a gun to school that day.
Police said the first grader intentionally shot teacher Abby Zwerner as she sat at a reading table during a lesson. Zwerner, who was hit in the hand and chest, spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and has endured multiple surgeries.
Moments after the shooting, according to search warrants filed in the case, the child told a reading specialist who restrained him: “I shot that (expletive) dead,” and “I got my mom’s gun last night.”
Police said the student brought the gun to school in his backpack, but it had been unclear exactly how the 6-year-old got the gun.
During Taylor's plea hearing Tuesday, prosecutor Joshua Jenkins said the boy told authorities he got the gun by climbing onto a drawer to reach the top of a dresser, where the gun was stored in his mother's purse. Those details were contained in a “stipulation of facts," a list of facts that both sides agree are true.
When police arrived at the school that day, they entered the classroom and saw the boy being restrained by the reading specialist, according to the stipulation of facts document Jenkins read aloud in court.
The boy used a profanity and said "I shot my teacher," before breaking free and punching the reading specialist in the face, the document states.
The gun was on the floor nearby. “My mom had that. ....I stole it because I needed to shoot my teacher," the boy said, according to the document.
The document said the boy had been diagnosed with a defiance disorder. He had previously taken his mother's car keys from her purse, which prompted her to put her keys in a lock box. But she continued to keep her gun in her purse, the document states.
The stipulation of facts also cited a report from Child Protective Services, which indicated the child had played with a gun at his grandmother’s house last year.
“When interviewed in reference to that incident, (the boy) reported that he 'wanted to visit a gun range,'” according to the stipulation of facts.
After the shooting at Richneck Elementary School, Taylor told police she believed her gun was in her purse, secured with a trigger lock, according to search warrants. She said she kept the gunlock key under her bedroom mattress. But agents with Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said they never found a trigger lock after conducting searches, according to federal court documents. The stipulation of facts also said there was no gun safe or trigger lock found during searches by authorities.
Dressed in a jean jacket and resting her left hand against her hip, Taylor did not speak during the plea hearing except to answer questions from the judge about whether she understood the proceeding. She spoke softly and was asked by the judge to raise her voice.
In June, Taylor pleaded guilty in a separate but related federal case to using marijuana while possessing a firearm, which is illegal under U.S. law.
Taylor was charged in April by prosecutors in Newport News with felony child neglect and a misdemeanor count of recklessly storing of a firearm.
Taylor’s attorney, James Ellenson, said at the time that there were “mitigating circumstances,” including her miscarriages and postpartum depression before the shooting. Ellenson said Tuesday he will address depression and anxiety issues at Taylor's sentencing hearing.
Taylor told ABC’s “Good Morning America” in May that she feels responsible and apologized to Zwerner.
“That is my son, so I am, as a parent, obviously willing to take responsibility for him because he can’t take responsibility for himself,” Taylor said.
Her son has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and was under a care plan that included a family member accompanying him to class every day, Ellenson said.
The week of the shooting was the first when a parent was not in class with him. The change was made because the boy had started medication and was meeting his goals academically, Taylor said.
“I just truly would like to apologize,” Taylor said on the show.
Virginia’s law on felony child neglect says any parent, guardian or other person responsible for the care of a child “whose willful act or omission in the care of such child was so gross, wanton, and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life” is guilty of a Class 6 felony.
Ellenson said in court Tuesday that the boy is now in the care of his great-grandfather.
Lavoie reported from Richmond, Virginia.