LURAY — Page County’s second-longest jury trial in nearly a decade came to a close on Friday with the jury recommending that the defendant serve 35 years for felony murder and child abuse.
Following a nine-day trial, which officially got underway in Page County Circuit Court on Sept. 8 after a full day of motions during pretrial proceedings on Sept. 7, a jury recommended that Ian Alexander Zimmerman, 24, of Elkton, serve 25 years for the felony murder of a 10-month-old and 10 years for abuse that led to the child’s death.
Zimmerman, who was residing in Luray with the child’s mother during the time of the offenses, was indicted by a Page County grand jury in August 2020. A jury trial was originally scheduled to begin in February 2021 but was postponed several times due to the coronavirus crisis.
Charges stem from the morning of Nov. 20, 2019, when Zimmerman was caring for his girlfriend’s 10-month-old son at a residence on North Hawksbill Street in Luray while she was in Harrisonburg for a job interview. According to a criminal complaint, Zimmerman told police that while he was changing the child’s diaper on a couch in the living room he left the room for 10 to 20 seconds and returned to find the child crying and lying facedown on the floor.
Zimmerman told police that the child became unresponsive about 15 to 20 minutes later, at which point he picked the child up and shook him “in an effort to get a response,” but the child remained unresponsive and his body “became limp.”
Zimmerman did not call 911 for emergency medical services. Instead, Zimmerman went to a neighbor’s house to use their cellphone and called the child’s mother, who instructed him to call 911 “at least two times.”
Zimmerman did not call 911 and returned to his residence. When the child’s mother arrived about 25 to 30 minutes later, “she discovered the child laying on a couch unresponsive, limp and having a blank stare,” according to the criminal complaint. She then took to the child to Page Memorial Hospital, where he was airlifted to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville.
The 10-month-old died two days later on Nov. 22, 2019. A Nov. 25, 2019, autopsy concluded that the child’s death was a result of a brain and spinal cord injury “consistent with Shaken Impact Syndrome,” according to court records.
During the trial, Page County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ken Alger argued that Zimmerman intentionally abused the child and that injuries sustained during the course of that abuse led to the child’s death. The prosecution called more than a dozen medical professionals to testify, including the child’s treating physicians at U.Va. Medical Center, medical examiners, pediatric and neurosurgeons, an ophthalmologist, the child’s pediatrician and child abuse experts.
Experts testified that the victim’s extensive injuries were not accidental, but due to intentionally inflicted trauma. The child sustained more than two dozen injuries, said Alger, including bleeding of the brain, eyes and spinal cord, swelling of the brain, detached retinas and dozens of contusions on his face and body.
One doctor called by the prosecution testified that about 90% of the child’s brain was affected by injuries. A medical examiner testified that retinal hemorrhaging he observed in the child was the worst he’d seen during his career. The defense called two experts who testified that the child’s injuries were due to natural causes — possibly a stroke, pneumonia or falling from the 17-inch-tall seat of the couch.
Many of the experts and witnesses testified by video and teleconferencing platforms such as Zoom —technology used for the first time in Page County during a trial due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Both the child’s mother and Zimmerman also took the stand during the nine-day trial.
The mother additionally was in court each day of the trial. According to court records, Zimmerman told police during a Nov. 20, 2019, interview that after the child fell off the couch that morning and became unresponsive he shook the 10-month-old “three or four times.”
“I want the record to show that I didn’t, like, violently shake him or anything like that,” Zimmerman told police, according to a transcript of the Nov. 20, 2019, interview. “I was kind of shaking him like how I would shake you if you were unresponsive to me. The severity of the shake may have been more than it normally would have because of my emotional sadness ... Tensions were rose, it freaked me out. At that point I knew it was serious and I needed to call somebody.”
When an officer asked him during the interview why he didn’t call 911, Zimmerman said he was waiting for the child’s mother to return home.
“I didn’t think that there was ever a point where, like, ‘Oh, like, he is dying right now.’ ... I’m like, ‘He needs to go to the hospital’ —that’s what it was. And that’s why I went and called [my girlfriend],” Zimmerman told police. “I didn’t think she would just want me to call an ambulance and then, like, [call and tell her] ‘Hey, your kid’s in the hospital’ and that sort of thing.”
When asked by police if he did not call 911 because he “was afraid [he’d] get in trouble,” Zimmerman said no.
“No, not in trouble,” he told police. “I just didn’t know. Like I said, I’d never been in a situation like that before and I — I was afraid for him, not for myself. I was afraid for him because it scared me to see ...
“I didn’t know what was going on ...The only reason I did not call the ambulance, like I said, is because I was like, ‘Well, maybe he will be OK, let me give him like 10 to 20 minutes,’ and during that time, that’s what I’m saying, that’s when he became unresponsive, and after he was unresponsive for maybe 10 minutes, that’s when I called [his mother],” Zimmerman continued. “Like I said, uh, while I was on the phone with her, if she would have told me [she would be] anymore than like 30 minutes, then the ambulance definitely would have been called, and the lady — like, my neighbor — was like, ‘You know, maybe you should [call 911].’ [My neighbor] asked me, like, ‘Do you want me to see him?’ and I said, “Yeah, you can if you want.’ She didn’t. No, she didn’t go over there because I told her that [my girlfriend] was about 25, 30 minutes out.”
Alger argued that Zimmerman failed to call 911, even when his girlfriend instructed him to, in order to buy time while he came up with an explanation for the child’s injuries, which included patterned bruises consistent with the shape of a hand. The prosecution additionally argued that Zimmerman downplayed the extent of the child’s injuries to both his neighbor and the child’s mother.
On Friday the jury deliberated for about four hours before finding Zimmerman guilty of felony murder and child abuse.
Alger said on Monday that he argued for a “harsh sentence”due to the extensive injuries sustained by the child and that the Page County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office spent about 600 hours over the course of 12 weeks preparing for the trial. The jury trial marked the second-longest during Alger’s tenure as Page County commonwealth’s attorney since he took office in January 2012.
“The key to the case was preparation — there was so much medical information and so many details that were important,” Alger said. “It’s important that anytime someone is hurt or someone dies that someone is held accountable. It’s so important when you have a loss of life that I do everything I can to make sure that justice is done.”
Zimmerman is scheduled to be sentenced in Page County Circuit Court by Judge Clark Ritchie at 2 p.m. on Dec. 15.