U.S.

Lawyer: Virginia school “failed to act ”

The mother of a 6-year-old boy who shot his teacher in Virginia was sentenced Wednesday to 21 months in prison for using marijuana while owning a firearm, which is illegal under U.S. law.

Deja Taylor’s son took her handgun to school and shot Abby Zwerner in her first-grade classroom in January, seriously wounding the educator. Investigators later found nearly an ounce of marijuana in Taylor’s bedroom and evidence of frequent drug use in her text messages and paraphernalia.

Taylor’s sentencing in a U.S. District Court offered the first measure of accountability for January’s shooting, which added to the national dialogue about gun violence and roiled the military shipbuilding city of Newport News.

Abby Zwerner, a Virginia teacher, was shot by a 6-year-old boy. 

Zwerner family

Taylor, 26, still faces a separate sentencing in December on the state level for felony child neglect. She pleaded guilty in August to felony child neglect in a Newport News courtroom. Prosecutors said they would seek a sentence of six months. 

Zwerner is suing the school system for $40 million, alleging that administrators ignored multiple warnings that the boy had a gun. Zwerner spent nearly two weeks in the hospital and has had four surgeries since the shooting. Defendants in the lawsuit are the Newport News School Board, former Superintendent George Parker III, former Richneck Elementary principal Briana Foster Newton and former Richneck assistant principal Ebony Parker.

“Our focus remains on justice for Abby and holding the school system accountable,” attorney Diane Toscano said in a statement to CBS News.

Many states ban drug users from owning guns

The federal case against Taylor comes at a time when marijuana is legal in many states, including Virginia, while many Americans own firearms.

Some U.S. courts in other parts of the country have ruled against the federal law that bans drug users from having guns. But the law remains in effect in many states and has been used to charge others, including Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son.

Both Taylor and Biden were charged with the same federal statutes of unlawful use of a controlled substance in possession of a firearm and making a false statement during the purchase of a firearm.

Federal prosecutors in Virginia argued in court filings that Taylor’s “chronic, persistent and … life-affecting abuse extends this case far beyond any occasional and/or recreational use.”

Prosecutors had sought a 21-month prison sentence.

Deja Nicole Taylor, the mother of the 6-year-old shooter at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, is escorted out by her grandfather, Calvin Taylor, following her arraignment at the Newport News Circuit Court.

Getty Images

“This case is not a marijuana case,” they wrote. “It is a case that underscores the inherently dangerous nature and circumstances that arise from the caustic cocktail of mixing consistent and prolonged controlled substance use with a lethal firearm.”

Taylor agreed in June to a negotiated guilty plea. She was convicted of using marijuana while owning a gun, as well as making a false statement about her drug use on a federal form when she bought the gun. 

Taylor’s attorneys argued that the U.S. Supreme Court could eventually strike down the federal ban on drug users owning guns. For example, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans ruled in August that drug users should not automatically be banned from having guns.

Other lower courts have upheld the ban and the Justice Department has appealed the 5th Circuit ruling to the Supreme Court. The high court has not yet decided whether to take up the case.

Federal law generally prohibits people from possessing firearms if they have been convicted of a felony, been committed to a mental institution or are an unlawful user of a controlled substance, among other things.

The United States Sentencing Commission reported that nearly 8,700 people were convicted under the law last year. The commission did not provide a detailed breakdown of how many were charged because of their drug use. But it said nearly 88% of them were convicted because of a prior felony conviction.

Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the pro-legalization group Marijuana Policy Project, told The Associated Press in June that about 18% of Americans admitted to using cannabis in the last year and about 40% owned guns.

Needs treatment, not incarceration

Taylor’s attorneys had asked the judge for probation and home confinement, according to court filings. Her attorneys said Taylor was a victim of domestic abuse and had experienced several miscarriages and postpartum depression. They argued Taylor needs counseling for issues that include schizoaffective disorder, a condition that shares symptoms with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

“Ms. Taylor is deeply saddened, extremely despondent, and completely remorseful for the unintended consequences and mistakes that led to this horrible shooting,” her attorneys wrote.

They also said she needs treatment for marijuana addiction.

“Addiction is a disease and incarceration is not the cure,” her attorneys wrote.

Deja Nicole Taylor, the mother of the 6-year-old shooter at Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, is seen following her arraignment at Newport News Circuit Court on April 14, 2023.

Newport News Daily Press via Getty Images

Taylor’s grandfather has had full custody of her son, now age 7, since the shooting, according to court documents.

The boy told authorities he obtained the gun by climbing onto a drawer to reach the top of a dresser, where the firearm was in his mom’s purse. His mother told police that normally she stored the gun in a lock box or her purse with a trigger lock in place, according to a search warrant.

Taylor thought the gun was in her purse on top of her dresser on the morning of the shooting, police said. The key for the trigger lock was under her mattress, she said. 

Investigators, however, said they couldn’t find a trigger lock or a lock box during searches of Taylor’s home or her mother’s home.

Immediately after the shooting, the child told a reading specialist who restrained him: “I shot that (expletive) dead” and “I got my mom’s gun last night,” according to search warrants.

It was not the first time Taylor’s gun was fired in public, prosecutors wrote. Taylor shot at her son’s father in December after seeing him with his girlfriend.

Sometime after her son shot his teacher, Taylor smoked two blunts, prosecutors added. She also failed drug tests while awaiting sentencing on the federal charges.

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