Drowning suspect withdraws guilty plea
April 01, 2014 11:00 AM
by SAM KUSIC
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A woman accused in the accidental bathtub drowning of her son withdrew her guilty plea on Monday, and the case will once again head to a jury trial.

When the jury is seated in June, it will have to decide whether Tonya N. Thomas, 26, of Clarksburg, was ultimately responsible in the drowning of her 13-month-old son, Ryden, on Feb. 2, 2013.

According to state police in Indiana, Thomas put Ryden into a bathtub, along two other siblings, ages 3 and 2, and left them unattended while she did some other chores in their White Township home.

When she checked in on the children minutes later, she found Ryden face down in the tub and unresponsive.

He was taken to Indiana Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead at 8:32 p.m. Police said that at one point, Thomas had passed by the bathroom and noticed only two heads above the tub. Yet she did not look in any further, police said.

The case was to have been tried in January, but Thomas decided to forgo her day in court by accepting a plea agreement with the Indiana County District Attorney’s office. Under that agreement, prosecutors offered Thomas a lesser count of homicide and a pass on most of the other counts against her, in exchange for a guilty a plea.

As a result, she had admitted guilt to a misdemeanor count of involuntary manslaughter and a felony count of recklessly endangering the welfare of a child. She was to have learned her sentence Monday, but instead told Judge Thomas Bianco that she wished to change her plea to not guilty and have her case heard by a jury.

Following the hearing, public defender Bradley Ophaug said the case is a tragic accident and that Thomas is innocent. He also said that her son’s death has caused her to suffer enough. For her to be convicted would be layering a tragedy on top of a tragedy, Ophaug said.

In January, Ophaug said Thomas agreed to the plea to avoid having to relive the incident in court. But since then, Thomas apparently had been rethinking that decision. Ophaug said considerable thought was given to changing the plea.

With her plea withdrawn, prosecutors rescinded the plea agreement and, as a result, the involuntary manslaughter charge reverts to a general count of criminal homicide.

District Attorney Patrick Dougherty said he will ask a jury to convict Thomas of third-degree murder, as he had been planning to do all along. He also will prosecute Thomas on all of the other charges, he said.

Dougherty did not object to Thomas’ decision, but he cautioned her defense that no other plea agreements will be offered.

“We felt we had reached a fair agreement with Ms. Thomas,” he told the court.

Bianco scheduled the trial to begin June 23. He told the lawyers he would not postpone it, either, without a good reason.

Thomas remains free on a $250,000 unsecured bond.

Thomas’ husband, Wesley Thomas, also had been charged with counts of recklessly endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person.

According to police, Thomas had told her husband to keep an ear on the kids while he played a video game in an adjoining bedroom.

He accepted a plea deal with prosecutors, served time in Indiana County Jail and is now serving probation.

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