Jury finds mother guilty in tub death
June 26, 2014 11:00 AM
by SAM KUSIC
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A jury on Wednesday convicted a 27-year-old mother of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and other crimes in the accidental bathtub drowning of her 13-month-old son.

In convicting Tonya N. Thomas, the jury agreed with prosecutors that she had acted recklessly in leaving her son, Ryden, and his two siblings unattended in the bathtub last year in their White Township home.

The jury, which deliberated for about three hours, also found Thomas guilty of reckless endangerment and three counts of endangering the welfare of a child, one count for each of the children she had left in the tub.

Thomas and her attorney, public defender Brad Ophaug, declined comment following the trial. However, one person who had accompanied Thomas throughout the trial suggested she hadn’t received a fair trial because of the publicity surrounding it. But she didn’t elaborate when pressed by a television news reporter.

The trial lasted a day-and-a-half, with the lion’s share of testimony having being been presented on Tuesday.

Prosecutors argued that Thomas was reckless to have left the children in the tub and to have expected that her 3-year-old would alert her to anything amiss, something that she routinely did, investigators said she told them.

And, prosecutors said, it was reckless for Thomas to have counted on her husband, Wesley, 26, to keep “an ear out” for the children as he sat in a nearby bedroom, using a cellphone. According to testimony, Thomas had assumed the role of primary caregiver because she did not trust her husband to be left alone with the children — he had a tendency to become absorbed in video games or to fall asleep, according to testimony.

He, too, was charged in Ryden’s death and in November pleaded guilty to three counts of endangering the welfare of a child. He was sentenced to three months to two years in jail plus probation.

That aside, prosecutors said Thomas was extremely reckless because at one point, she had walked by the bathroom and saw only two heads above the rim of the tub. Yet, she didn’t look in on them. Had she taken a single step inside the bathroom, she may have seen Ryden face down in the water.

“And maybe at that point in time she could have saved him,” said Senior Assistant District Attorney Geoffrey Kugler during closing arguments.

Her defense countered during the trial that from her vantage point, Thomas might not have been able to see all three heads, and because it was her home and was accustomed to the limited sightline, it would have been natural to not think anything of it.

Throughout the trial, her attorneys, mostly through cross-examination of prosecution witnesses, tried to demonstrate that Thomas was working to be a good mother.

State police criminal investigator Josiah Murdock said he saw no signs of drug or alcohol use in the home. And he and social workers who were working with the family said they noted that the Thomas children were clean, fed and that Tonya Thomas appeared to be attentive to Ryden’s health care needs.

The defense also put blame on Wesley Thomas, saying that he had neglected his duty as a parent. In agreeing that he would keep an ear out for the children while they were in the tub, he had accepted the transfer of responsibility for them at that time, Ophaug said during closing arguments.

Ophaug also told the jury that Ryden’s death was an accident, one that could happen to any child while under the care of even the most responsible of parents or guardians. It’s impossible, he said, to monitor children at all times.

Thomas will remain free on bond until she is sentenced July 21.

The case went before a jury after Thomas withdrew from a plea agreement earlier this year. Under that agreement, she was to have pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and endangering the welfare of a child. In exchange, the other charges were to have been withdrawn, and prosecutors were going to recommend that she serve her sentences concurrently.

But as a result of her conviction, it is likely that she will serve a much stiffer sentence than the one she would have received under the plea agreement, partly because there will be sentencing enhancements on account of Ryden’s age and that he was under Thomas’ supervision at the time of his death.

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