Former Wheeling Middle School teacher Jennifer Bennett, who allegedly exchanged nude pictures with a student, postponed pleading guilty to a child pornography charge Wednesday on the advice of her attorney.
Bennett, 36, of Wheeling was to plead guilty in Ohio County Circuit Court to a single count of possession of child pornography. Prior to the hearing, however, Bennett and her attorney, Chief Public Defender Shayne Welling, met with Assistant Prosecutor Gail Kahle behind closed doors in Judge James Mazzone's chambers.
After 30 minutes of private discussions, Mazzone ascended to the bench and announced Bennett wanted more time to consider the plea agreement and would not enter a plea Wednesday. Following the hearing, Welling said there was a last-minute development regarding sentencing, and that he advised Bennett to delay her plea. He added, however, that Bennett is still expected to plead guilty to the charge.
Former Wheeling Middle School teacher Jennifer Bennett sits next to her attorney, Chief Public Defender Shayne Welling, during a hearing in Ohio County Circuit Court on Wednesday.
Photo by Tyler Reynard
A charge of possession of child pornography carries a maximum penalty of two years in prison. Parties will be free to argue sentencing, and Welling is expected to lobby against prison time for his client.
A return date was not set Wednesday, but the case is not bound by time constraints because the prosecution has not presented Bennett's case to a grand jury. Kahle did not indicate if his office will attempt to indict Bennett during the upcoming grand jury May 14.
When asked why an indictment was never sought during the previous two grand jury sessions, Kahle said he and Welling have been engaged in ongoing negotiations.
Following her guilty plea, Bennett is expected to interview with Ohio County Chief Probation Officer William Ball. Mazzone will consider a report authored by Ball in determining Bennett's sentence.
According to a West Virginia State Police report, Bennett was the boy's seventh-grade teacher at Wheeling Middle School, where she taught reading and language arts. The boy said Bennett started sending him text messages in August 2009, when he was a 15-year-old high school freshman.
The messages reportedly turned sexual, and the boy and Bennett started exchanging pictures of their genitals, police said. The boy indicated he and Bennett exchanged about 20 sexually explicit pictures, the report states.
Bennett resigned from her teaching position at Wheeling Middle in February 2012 after learning she was the target of a police investigation. She was arrested by State Police in May, subsequently posted $10,000 bond and has remained free since.