Jenkins sentenced to 90 days in jail, four years probation in negligent death of son

Craig resident Vanessa Jenkins was sentenced to 90 days in jail and four years of probation during her sentencing hearing Monday afternoon in Moffat County Courtroom 1M. Jenkins will have to serve 88 days behind bars due to a 2-day credit from her original arrest.

Jenkins was taken into custody following the sentencing hearing Monday.

Vanessa Jenkins
Courtesy photo

Jenkins, the mother of 3-year-old Lane E. Cullen who died in the 2018 Christmas Eve house fire, pleaded guilty to Criminally Negligent Homicide, a class 5 felony, on Nov. 25, 2019. In that plea agreement, Jenkins was able to secure an Alford deal, which is essentially a plea of guilty by a defendant who proclaims their innocence, but admits the prosecution has enough evidence to prove they are guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

That guilty plea and Alford deal capped her possible sentence at three years in jail.

On Monday, Chief Judge Michael O’Hara sentenced Jenkins to serve 90 days in jail and four years of probation. Part of the stipulation with her probation is that she must pay restitution, and must also serve 250 hours of community service.

During opening remarks, Assistant District Attorney Matthew Tjosvold argued that Jenkins should be sentenced to three years, the full maximum allowed within the plea. Tjosvold argued against probation because of the seriousness of the crime, and argued that Jenkins hadn’t learned from her mistakes, citing an interview with the probation team in which Jenkins “got up and left the room, and left behind a lighter.”

Tjosvold also argued that Jenkins could have prevented the death of her son if she would have taken the appropriate steps.

“She knew that the child regularly played with lighters; she watched him use a lighter to light a candle, and watched him use a lighter to light bed sheets on fire,” Tjosvold said. “She is known to have previously made the comment, ‘isn’t it cute that he knows how to use a lighter.'”

During the initial investigation into the child’s death, several of Jenkins’ family members, as well as witnesses interviewed by police, said they were aware Jenkins’ boy had learned how to play with lighters whose safety devices had been removed.

Tjosvold argued that despite knowing this, Jenkins still made lighters readily available to the boy in the house.

Additionally, Tjosvold argued Jenkins continues to blame others for her son’s death that day, including blaming a friend for failing to pick up her son that morning, among others.

“She was the only adult in the home that morning; she has no one else to blame,” Tjosvold said. “This was not a one-time thing, this was at least the third time prior. It’s that fact, the fact that three events prior to this and her knowledge of these events makes this a blame-worth event.”

Jenkins’ defense team argued that Jenkins should received 90 days in jail and two years of probation, allowing her to rehabilitate herself once she’s folded back into society.

“It’s important that when she is out in society that she’s a productive member of society,” Public Defender Kathryn Bush said. “I want it to be known that Ms. Jenkins has enrolled in the GED program; she is enrolled in out-patient treatment, and is testing negative for substance abuse while on a Suboxone subscription. She has complied with everything.”

Bush added that the court does need to send a message to the community that when you have a tragedy in your life and you’re responsible for it, you will receive punishment, but you will get an opportunity to learn from your mistakes.

Judge O’Hara partially agreed with the defense, citing Jenkins’ lack of criminal history and a need to rehabilitate herself.

Handing down the sentence, Judge O’Hara told Jenkins to take advantage of the opportunity to get the help she needs.

“I’m not saying you’re broken, but you need to take advantage of this,” Judge O’Hara said. “Get the help that you need, and take advantage of this opportunity you’ve been given.”

Judge O’Hara also ordered Jenkins to complete a rehabilitation program for substance abuse, and that she must report to her probation officer immediately following her release from jail.

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