Judge James Mazzone deviated from the joint recommendation of the defense and prosecution Friday in sentencing former teacher Jennifer Bennett to one year in prison and one year of supervised release for having nude cell phone photos of a former student.
Bennett, 36, of Wheeling, pleaded guilty in Ohio County Circuit Court on May 17 to a single count of possession of child pornography.
Mazzone also ordered the mother of two to register as a sex offender for life and undergo counseling as a term of her sentence. Bennett will self-report to the Northern Regional Jail in Moundsville on Aug 1. She will remain on home confinement until that date.
Photo by Tyler Reynard
Former Wheeling Middle School teacher Jennifer Bennett sobs as she sits next to her attorney, Chief Public Defender Shayne Welling, during a sentencing hearing Friday in Ohio County Circuit Court.
According to the terms of the plea agreement Bennett entered into last month, Ohio County Prosecutor Gail Kahle and Bennett's attorney, Chief Public Defender Shayne Welling, both recommended Bennett avoid prison time in favor of two years of probation. In his pre-sentence investigation report, Ohio County Chief Probation Officer William Ball also recommended alternative sentencing.
Prior to the judge's sentencing, Bennett actually thanked West Virginia State Police, saying Sgt. James Kozik's investigation deterred her from continuing down a "path of destruction."
"I don't like myself a whole lot anymore," she disclosed. "I don't feel like a good person and I don't feel very worthy of the love and understanding that I get from some people, so I punish myself on a daily basis."
Bennett pleaded for alternative sentencing, saying incarceration would not only punish her, but it would punish her children, as well as her mother, who suffers from multiple sclerosis and is dependent.
"I know that I was wrong ... I know I deserve to be punished," Bennett told Mazzone, "but I'm just asking you to find a way to punish me without punishing them."
Welling pointed out that Bennett has no criminal history. He also referenced her psychological analysis, in which Dr. Robert Rush diagnosed Bennett with dependent personality disorder, and said her relationship with the victim was not sexually gratifying.
"The texting and the sharing of the images, in Miss Bennett's mind and her inability to rationalize, it was currency," Welling contended. "It was currency to continue the emotional bond with the victim. It was not sexually motivated."
The lifetime sex offender registration requirement is already a "living life sentence," Welling added.
Kahle said the victim and his family did not object to alternative sentencing, and they want they want to move on from the case.
At the conclusion of Friday's hearing, however, Mazzone said the details of the case offended him as a judge, as well as a parent. Anyone in the courtroom would have been incensed if their child was the victim in such a case, the judge added.
Bennett had the opportunity to cease contact with the victim throughout the months they were in communication, Mazzone continued, and as an adult, was charged with using better judgment.
When it became apparent that Mazzone was not going to adopt the recommended sentence of two years of probation, Bennett began to sob and put her hands to her eyes.
State Police began investigating Bennett in June 2011 after the mother of one of her former students reported that she believed Bennett and the then-16-year-old boy shared an inappropriate relationship. Bennett was the boy's seventh-grade teacher at Wheeling Middle School, where she taught reading and language arts.
No criminal evidence was discovered during the initial months of the investigation, but in February 2012, the boy told State Police that he and Bennett had been exchanging cell phone pictures of their genitals. Bennett admitted as much during an interview with investigators and resigned her teaching position that same month.
The photos, however, were deleted and never recovered by State Police.