By Randy Arrington
LURAY, March 23 — On Wednesday in Page County Circuit Court, the Honorable Clark A. Ritchie agreed with the September recommendation of a jury and sentenced Ian Alexander Zimmerman to a total of 35 years in prison and a $50,000 fine for the murder and abuse of a 10-month child in his care more than two years ago.
Following Wednesday’s sentencing, Melody, the mother of 10-month-old Averest, said the ruling will do little to fill the void left in her life and the impact that losing a child has on a young mother.
“Considering it’s my son…I don’t think any sentence is going to make me feel better,” she said. “After it happened, I was traumatized…I had PTSD. Then, I couldn’t let it go…I had to replay it in my mind because of the trial.”
On the morning of Nov. 20, 2019, Melody traveled to Harrisonburg for a job interview. Zimmerman was caring for the child in the North Hawksbill Street residence they shared in Luray, when he stepped away from changing the child’s diaper for 15 to 20 seconds, according to his testimony. When he returned, he reported finding the child on the floor, and then shook the 10 month old “three or four times” to revive it, he told police. When the child remained unresponsive and “became limp”, he called the child’s mother, but never dialed 911 — even though the mother asked him to do so several times, according to testimony.
“I should have called 911,” Zimmerman said in a prepared statement during Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, “and I think about it every day.”
After the mother arrived back in Luray, the child was taken to Page Memorial Hospital and then airlifted to the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville. The 10 month old died two days later on Nov. 22, 2019.
“At first I didn’t know what he died from,” Melody said this week, “but like they said in court, there was overwhelming evidence.”
An autopsy conducted three days later concluded that the child’s death was the result of brain and spinal cord injury “consistent with Shaken Impact Syndrome.” The prosecution put more than a dozen medical professionals on the stand, some testifying that the more than two dozen injuries were “not accidental”, 90 percent of the child’s brain was damaged, and one stating the retinal hemorrhaging was the worst they’d ever seen.
Zimmerman plead not guilty and proclaimed his innocence throughout the nine-day jury trial in September 2021, and it’s something that Judge Ritchie recalled vividly when he addressed the defendant prior to delivering his sentence.
“I am also the judge that was present for trial, and I heard evidence like the jury…and observed witnesses as they testified…and I watched you maintain your innocence,” Judge Ritchie told Zimmerman at Wednesday’s hearing. “The evidence in this case was overwhelming…I believe you shook this child until its life and spirit left its body…”
During the trial, the defense called two medical experts as witnesses who testified that the death could have been from natural causes, such as a stroke, pneumonia or the fall that Zimmerman reported. He was arrested and charged on March 25, 2020, and then indicted on both felony charges by a Page County grand jury on Aug. 5, 2020. The nine-day trial (Sept. 8-17), which was delayed multiple times due to issues from the COVID-19 pandemic, marked the longest jury trial in more than a decade in Page County.
During this week’s sentencing hearing, defense attorney Caleb J. Routhier of the Miller, Earle & Shanks law firm argued that a prolonged prison term could affect the development of Zimmerman’s 3-year-old son Jasper.
Jasper’s mother, Kiana Myers testified that their son was being affected by the absence of his father, that he “calls for him” and has become “more angry than he used to be.”
“I’m afraid he will have emotional and behavioral issues,” Myers said.
Zimmerman agreed, telling Judge Ritchie that a long-term prison sentence could lead to Jasper developing “bad relationships with other people” while his father is away.
“He’s definitely showing behavioral issues. I have respect for Kiana for being dad and mom,” Zimmerman said. “I know he’s only 3, but he’s my best friend…I love him, and I’ll always love him.”
Averest was not Zimmerman’s son, and his absence from Zimmerman’s remarks did not go unnoticed by the prosecution.
“The facts are very clear,” Page County Commonwealth’s Attorney Ken Alger stated in his closing argument on Wednesday. “He never even mentioned [Averest] ” in his remarks… a child who had “no future because he is deceased.”
Still maintaining his client’s innocence, Routhier said Zimmerman showed no remorse because “he maintains his innocence, as he has all along. It’s impossible for him to show remorse for something he didn’t do.”
The Harrisonburg attorney argued that the jury’s recommended sentence went well beyond the sentencing guidelines in this case, which the court said ranges from 12 years, 9 months on the “low end” to 21 years, 4 months on the “high end.” Routhier argued that the 35 years recommended by the jury was more than double the average of the sentencing guidelines, which is 17 years, one month.
Routhier asked the judge to consider a seven-year sentence to allow Zimmerman to rejoin Jasper’s life at a point where he can still make a positive impact before middle school. However, he also suggested that if the court would agree to the lower end of the sentencing guidelines — 12 years, 9 months — then Zimmerman could at least “still be able to be present in [Jasper’s] teenage years.”
Under new Virginia law, Zimmerman, 25, had the option to either have a jury render a recommended sentence or to bypass the jury and leave sentencing strictly up to the judge. His decision to allow the jury to issue a sentence saw a group of his peers recommend a punishment above the guidelines — one that Judge Ritchie agreed with — 25 years for the Class 3 felony murder charge, and 10 years plus a $50,000 fine for the Class 4 felony child neglect/abuse charge.
“The jury’s decision is very relevant — it is the conscience of the community,” Judge Ritchie stated. “I found the sentence appropriate, not because the jury recommended it…it was justified and merited by the evidence in this case and what you did…”
The defense’s argument that no motive existed for the crime fell on deaf ears.
“There’s really no motive. The Commonwealth Attorney said during his closing arguments at the trial, ‘I don’t have to prove a motive’,” Routhier said, as he compared the incident to a robbery in which the individual brings a gun to the crime and pulls the trigger. The defense counsel argued that his client’s actions were not “twice as egregious as a robber shooting a deadly gun.” Zimmerman, he said, is subject to an “accusation that he shook a child too hard.”
“There’s no evidence that he will do it again,” Routhier said as he touted his client’s relatively clean record and his exploration of both Christianity and Buddhism.
Zimmerman was allowed to read a statement prior to the judge rendering his sentence. During his remarks, the defendant spoke of how his father died when he was 9 years old; how he went to live with his mother and step-father; and how he was mentally, physically and sexually abused for several years.
He spoke of how he met Melody in high school, and how their friendship blossomed into love. He spoke of his struggles with depression. His voice firmed as he stated that he had been “incarcerated for something I didn’t do and would never do.”
“I will always maintain my innocence,” Zimmerman told the court. “My loved ones will always know the truth.”
He spoke of his love for his son Jasper; he vowed to never leave him and how he “quickly became my best friend.” He told the court he had been “stripped of what he loves” and that he’s being taken away from his wife and family.
“The jury has considered all the facts…the community has spoken,” Alger stated, as he asked the judge to uphold the jury’s recommended sentence.
As Judge Ritchie reviewed the case notes for a few moments before rendering his decision, a heavy stillness and thick silence hung in a room of nearly 20 people. Zimmerman sat silent, staring at the empty juror chairs across from him.
“You killed this boy,” Judge Ritchie told Zimmerman prior to sentencing. “The extent of the injuries…you were responsible…you were the person this child looked to for protection, and you were the one who was responsible for injuries that lead to a horrific death.”
The circuit court judge stated his empathy for Zimmerman’s son Jasper and “something your child had to witness.” He noted that “not having you” will be “something he’ll have to deal with.”
“This case is about Averest,” Judge Ritchie said. “His name is the one who needs to be heard today. He had the right to live, to grow…and you took that from the boy. I do not wish you ill will, and I hope you can find peace with this.”
At the end of the hearing, the commonwealth’s attorney felt that the court had heard the community.
“I think the jury heard all the facts and listened to the witnesses for two weeks, and they weighed all that out,” Alger said. “I think the judge was right — they are the conscience of the community, and his decision reflects the trust in our jury system.”
For Melody, there’s a small sense of closure, or at least an ending of sorts, after this horrific ordeal has dragged out over some 28 months. While Zimmerman, Myers and Melody were all friends in their teenage years at East Rockingham High School, so much has changed in such a short time.
“I still feel guilt for allowing [Zimmerman] into my son’s life,” Melody said while still sitting in the Page County Courthouse on Wednesday. The day generated waves of mixed feelings.
“It makes me feel good for my son because that’s what he deserves. I’ve fought for my son for so long,” Melody said. “I’m always going to have some type of issues…I’m never going to be completely okay…
“It’s sad…I feel bad for Jasper as well…”, she continued. “[Ian] did what he did, and he got what he deserved because my tiny, little baby definitely didn’t deserve what happened to him.”
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