The woman accused of negligence leading to her son dying in a house fire pleaded no contest Tuesday morning, the day her trial was to start.
Jennifer Ewing, in a weak voice choked with emotion, replied to all of the legal questions El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Daniel B. Proud asked. She often paused between answering the question, tears sometimes rolling down her face, before softly saying “Yeah” to many of the questions, sometimes muttering over Proud.
The judge announced that the plea deal would result in six years at a state prison, with credit for good conduct, and three years of probation following release.
He then asked how she would plead to the charge of abuse or child endangerment or neglect.
“I didn’t hurt my kid. I didn’t hurt him,” she said. “I didn’t abuse him.” Of the plea, she said, “I’ll take it,” and “I don’t have a choice.” Proud said she did, however, and that, unless she changed her mind, her choice was to take the plea deal. He noted that if she did change her mind, however, she could face 16 years instead of six if she was convicted through the trial.
“I loved him with all of my heart,” Ewing said. “He was my everything. I never hurt him.”
Her attorney, Michael Atwell, told the court that “Admitting she did something is something she just can’t do,” meaning she did not believe her actions caused her son Sebastian’s death. Sebastian died after he set fire to the house with a lighter while locked in his room. According to an autopsy report, he died of smoke inhalation and fire-related injuries.
Prosecutor Lisette Suder then told the court that they were referring to negligence, the “failure to act, so to speak,” she said, “based on the criminal neglect theory,” and not affirmative action, Suder said.
Ewing said she understood that she was “asleep at midnight” and that was considered negligent.
“Is that a no contest plea?” Proud asked. “Yeah,” she replied.
At that point, Atwell, who had sat next to Ewing as she struggled through answering questions, told the court that “This isn’t going well.” He requested more time to speak to his client in private.
After a short break, Atwell said that she would have a state prison sentence, but it would not count as a strike.
Ewing pleaded no contest to the charge, but moments later became hung up when Proud asked her whether she would admit to a special allegation that the injury lead to death. After she seemed confused and would not admit the special allegation, Suder explained that in order to avoid a trial, she would need to admit and stipulate that the child died as per the Grand Jury’s findings.
“I was asleep at midnight,” Ewing repeated, before again having Suder explain the plea deal would not go through without her admitting the allegation. She asked whether Ewing was taking the plea deal because it was in Ewing’s best interest, and Ewing replied that yes, she was. She and Atwell would then stipulate that the findings of the Grand Jury, that Sebastian had indeed died from the incident, were true.
With the plea having been entered, a judgement and sentencing hearing was scheduled for Jan. 25.