Custody Hearing May Decide Prison Time for Teacher

WHEELING – Circuit Judge James Mazzone will rely on the outcome of a child custody hearing to help determine if former teacher Jennifer Bennett will serve prison time for a sex crime or if he will modify her sentence to probation only.

Bennett, 36, of Wheeling was scheduled to self-report report to the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville last week to begin serving a one-year sentence for possession of child pornography. Mazzone also sentenced her to a year of probation.

Bennett’s attorney, Shayne Welling, recently moved to modify her sentence to two years probation and no incarceration, as was jointly recommended by the defense and prosecution in a plea agreement. Welling noted that if Bennett was jailed, she would lose custody of her two children, ages 13 and 7, to her estranged husband.

In an order filed Wednesday, Mazzone vacated Bennett’s self-report date and ordered she remain on monitored home confinement while awaiting Sinclair’s final ruling in the custody case.

If Sinclair finds Bennett fit to retain custody of children in light of her felony conviction, then Welling’s motion for modification will be decided by Mazzone. If Sinclair grants custody of the children to their father, then Welling’s argument that Bennett should stay out of jail for the sake of her children will be moot.

Sinclair was going to wait for Mazzone’s ruling on the proposed sentence modification before granting custody of the children to either parent. But Mazzone insisted that Sinclair’s decision should come first.

In Mazzone’s order filed Wednesday, the judge stated Sinclair “should be free to consider the issue of custody and parental fitness in the light of the best interest of the children uninfluenced by the sentence imposed by this Court.”

The final custody hearing in front of Sinclair will not take place until Nov. 19. Bennett will not be jailed prior to that hearing, as long as she does not violate the terms of her home confinement.

The Ohio County Prosecutor’s Office has no objection to the proposed modification of Bennett’s sentence.