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Three Years Prison for Child's Death

If she'd lived, Crissmis Noelle Reese Jones would be enjoying all the Christmas lights and looking forward to celebrating her second birthday on Dec. 30.

But she was never given the chance. Instead, as a newborn infant, she was beaten so brutally inside her Centreville home that she died at just five days old. And last Friday in Fairfax County Circuit Court, her 40-year-old grandmother, Heather Tracie Thomas, was sentenced to three years in prison for the crime.

"I'M SPEAKING on behalf of a young baby who, apparently, doesn't have anyone to speak for her," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kathryn Pavluchuk, prior to the sentencing. " Yet I can't speak of her achievements because she didn't have the opportunity to have a life."

State sentencing guidelines called for zero to six months in jail. But, stressing the severity of the injuries inflicted on Crissmis, Pavluchuk said this offense "warrants not probation, but a loss of liberty; significant incarceration is appropriate."

Born at Inova Fairfax Hospital, Dec. 30, 2005, at 8:08 a.m., Crissmis was a normal, healthy baby. On Jan. 3, 2006, her mother, then 19, took Crissmis home to London Towne where she lived with her own mother, Thomas, and Thomas's husband Lester.

Thomas was responsible for the infant's care and, at 9 p.m., Crissmis was placed in her crib in Thomas' bedroom. What happened later that night and in the wee hours of the morning is only known for sure by the person or persons who actually caused the infant's death.

But Crissmis had only been home for 18 hours when, on Jan. 4, 2006, Thomas called 911. When paramedics arrived, the baby was cold, her lips were turning blue and she had no pulse or breath. The child received CPR, but did not respond.

Dr. Christine Snell worked on her for an hour at Inova Fair Oaks Hospital before pronouncing her dead at 6:58 a.m. An autopsy revealed multiple abrasions and contusions on Crissmis's face, head, neck and torso, plus optic-nerve hemorrhages characteristic of shaken babies.

There was bleeding around the baby's liver, small intestine, diaphragm and pancreas, and one-fourth of the total amount of blood in her body was found in her abdominal cavity. The official cause of death was "trauma to the head and torso, caused by multiple blows."

Nine days later, police charged Thomas with felony homicide. She bonded out of jail, and then several delays ensued before she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, Sept. 17, in Circuit Court. And the terms of her plea agreement prevent police from charging her daughter in this crime.

THOMAS entered an Alford plea, not admitting guilt, but acknowledging the existence of enough evidence to find her guilty. Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Camille Turner said Thomas told Det. John Wallace that, the night of Jan. 3, 2006, she had six to eight shots of bourbon and rum."

"At 4 a.m., the baby was crying, and [Thomas] said she fed Crissmis and put her back in her crib," continued Turner. "When the baby cried again [after a short while], the defendant demonstrated to police on a stuffed animal how she shook Crissmis for about 20 seconds."

Turner said the baby vomited, but Thomas didn't call a doctor. "She thought it was because she'd shaken [the infant]," said the prosecutor. "[Thomas] fell asleep for 30 minutes and, when she awoke, Crissmis wasn't moving, at all."

But defense attorney Michael Arif said the child's mother, Samantha Jones, gave him a written statement, a year later, in which she admitted waking, Jan. 4, 2006, around 1 or 2 a.m., while Thomas slept, and bringing Crissmis into her own bed for some "mom-and-baby time."

But Jones fell asleep and woke up atop the infant. Said Arif: "She was scared because the baby wasn't responding ... so she shook her forcefully because she was frightened." When Crissmis suddenly opened her eyes, Jones placed her back into the crib and, not telling anyone what happened, raced back to bed and pulled the covers over her head.

Last Friday, Dec. 14, prior to Thomas's sentencing, her husband Lester called her a "loving and caring individual." They've been married since 2001 and, on June 14, she gave birth to their first child, currently living with his parents in Kentucky.

He said he wanted his wife to return home so they could mourn Crissmis's death and get back to their lives. He described her as "very upset" by the tragedy. "We planned to adopt the child and raise her as our own, to give her a happy, growing life," he said.

Lester Thomas said Jones — who never identified her baby's father — mostly agreed to that since, although now 22, she's still "very much a child." He said he and his wife want to "get on with our lives and raise our newborn, as we should be doing."

THEN JONES testified, "All I want people to know is my mother did nothing wrong. It was a mistake, and I accept it." As Heather Thomas listened and cried, her daughter stood by her written statement, adding, "I just want my mom home; we need to be a family. My mom doesn't deserve this."

"Did you ever try to tell Det. Wallace that you were the one that hurt Crissmis?" asked prosecutor Pavluchuk. "No," replied Jones. "I was way too afraid to."

And if not for her mother's imminent sentencing, "You would have never told the truth now?" asked Pavluchuk. "Yes," answered Jones. "I don't like to tell things."

Still, said Pavluchuk, "The Commonwealth is deeply concerned by the defendant's statements because they've widely varied. First, she said she shook the baby, then she said she didn't know how it happened and pointed a finger at the paramedics. Now, Miss Jones admits to causing the injuries which killed her daughter."

Pavluchuk said Thomas's Alford plea signified that she "hasn't accepted responsibility for her actions. They say they want to be a family again, but that family is now one person short. And no one knows by how many years — 70, 80, 90 — her life was cut short, so the defendant needs to be held accountable for her actions."

Arif reiterated Jones's role in the events. However, he added, "Sam did shake [Crissmis], but the injuries to her were already in place. The child didn't die exclusively of shaken-baby syndrome." And he said the Alford plea was "so I wouldn't have to point a finger at her daughter. [Thomas] wouldn't let me implicate Sam in the death of her child."

Asking Judge Jonathan Thacher to adhere to the sentencing guidelines, Arif said, "This is a family that's been torn apart."

Addressing the court, Thomas said, "I come before you in great sorrow and regret for the death of my granddaughter. I shook her to see if I could get a response from her before calling 911. I did not believe I'd done anything to cause her death. I would like grief counseling with my family so I could start the healing process." Thomas said if she'd known then what Jones had done, she'd have called 911 right away.

But Thacher, saddened, disgusted and angry at what happened to the infant, would have none of it. "I understand you entered an Alford plea, but I reject it out-of-hand," he told Thomas. "This wasn't a shaken-baby case — this was about a 5-day-old child who had 26 trauma sites to her body and four subdural hematomas to her skull."

THACHER painstakingly listed, one by one, each and every injury the newborn had sustained, including abrasions and contusions to her nose, cheek, jaw, chin, teeth and lip. He described the color and location of each bruise she had — even the purple contusions on her cheek, neck and above her ear, plus bruises on her back and several skull hemorrhages.

"That's not a child who was shaken," he said. "That's a child who was beaten and abused in the worst, possible way — an innocent, 5-day-old child, unable to take care of itself. And this woman was responsible for its care."

Thacher told Thomas: "You've pleaded guilty and, if ever a case called for deviation from the guidelines, this is it." He then sentenced her to 10 years in prison, suspending seven, and placing her on four years active probation upon her release.

Afterward, Pavluchuk called the sentence appropriate: "When a life is taken, justice needs to be done, and I think it was."