The back-and-forth murder case of a West Frankfort mother accused in the 2011 death of her daughter came to a stark end Monday, one day before her trial was due to start.
Mary Zumwalt-Jophlin, 32, entered guilty pleas to involuntary manslaughter, aggravated battery and concealment of a death, as potential jury members were ready to be questioned the next day. As part of the plea agreement, Zumwalt-Jophlin agreed to a sentence of 35 years in prison.
After the death of 8-year-old Alexus Smothers on July 19, 2011, Zumwalt-Jophlin was originally charged with first-degree murder and faced a potential life-sentence. In September 2011, she pleaded not guilty and waived her right to a speedy trial.
The case had been making its way through the court system for more than four years, including several delays and rescheduled pretrial hearing dates. The trial was put on hold earlier this year, pending an expert doctor’s report of Zumwalt-Jophlin’s mental health.
Her attorney, Terry Green, filed amended information Monday providing more details about the events of that night.
“The death of the child was not murder nor was the potential sentence of life in prison appropriate,” Green wrote in an email.
According to Lucian Dervan, a professor of Criminal Law at Southern Illinois University, it’s not unusual for the defendant to plead guilty so close to a trial date.
“Even after a long waiting period, it can happen to avoid the long and hard process of a murder trial, when sides have exhausted all their options,” Dervan said.
Murder trials are complex and involve the telling and re-living of graphic and gruesome events, he said.
"It's possible she simply wanted to move forward in a manner that didn't involve a trial or she thought a trial was too costly, both financially and emotionally," Dervan said. “What we don’t know is what prompted this plea of guilty at that moment, whether that was offering some type of advantage in a bargain or something else."
A major piece of evidence in the case was Zumwalt-Jophlin’s 911 call on July 19, 2011, where she told police she noticed her child was missing when she woke up during the night.
She later told police she panicked after her daughter fell and hit her head in the bathtub.
The mother told police she did not administer any life-saving treatment to Alexus and carried her daughter's body through the house and hid her in a basement crawl space. That's where police found her the next morning. Alexus was pronounced dead at the scene; the cause of death was drowning.
“Against the backdrop of the life she had had, Mary took a number of panicked steps four years ago that she acknowledged in court. It was these steps that led to the involuntary death of her daughter,” Green said.
According to Green, Zumwalt-Jophlin was sexually abused at a young age, bullied in high school and beaten repeatedly by a boyfriend.
“She was left seeking to raise her three children, including one who is of special needs, as a single parent on the verge of homelessness,” he said.
Monday's plea, Green said, will finally give Zumwalt-Jophlin and her family more peace to start healing, a time that's been over four years in the making.