A Washington woman serving life in prison for killing her newborn baby in 2004 had her sentence vacated last week after the state Superior Court ruled her trial attorney did not properly advise her on merits of taking a plea deal offered by prosecutors.
Jessica Chappel Rizor should have been given better advice from her counsel to plead guilty to lesser charges that would have offered a significantly shorter sentence, the Superior Court ruled late Friday while ordering that she either be tried again or permitted to negotiate a new plea deal.
“It’s as if the trial never happened,” said attorney Josh Camson, who represented Rizor through her recent appeals. “Huge. Hugely significant for us. We succeeded in showing that she did not have proper counsel for taking a plea.”
Rizor was accused of killing her newborn daughter Nov. 26, 2004, by wrapping the baby in a plastic bag and placing her in the trash. While Rizor claimed the infant was stillborn, an autopsy determined the full-term baby was alive and died of asphyxiation. Prosecutors at the time alleged she hid the pregnancy from her family and friends, and it was her then-husband who discovered the child’s body in the trash.
Rizor, who is now 44, was convicted of first-degree murder, concealing the death of a child and abuse of a corpse following her trial in 2008 and sentenced to life in prison without parole. However, prosecutors had previously offered her a deal to plead guilty but mentally ill to third degree murder in exchange for a 5½- to- 30-year sentence, but her defense attorney, Robert Brady, never fully explained the consequence of rejecting that offer and going to trial, the Superior Court ruled. Instead, Brady advised her to use a “diminished mental capacity” defense that Judge John DiSalle ruled would not be admissible during the trial.
“Had counsel advised (Rizor) to take the plea and (Rizor) thereby accepted the advice, she would have received a sentence of 5½ to 30 years of incarceration – instead of the life without the possibility of parole sentence that she is currently serving,” the court wrote.
During subsequent appeals, Brady was never available for hearings after moving to Thailand. DiSalle rejected multiple appeals, including Camson’s attempt in 2018 to get her resentenced on terms similar to the original plea deal offer. Camson said Friday’s ruling resets the entire process from the beginning.
“Hopefully, the case goes back to the trial court level,” Camson said. “It’s as if we go back to square one.”
He expected to speak to Rizor today about her options since he was unable to contact her Monday due to the federal holiday. She is being held at SCI-Muncy prison in Lycoming County, although it was not immediately known when she would be transferred back to the Washington County jail for the renewed proceedings.
District Attorney Jason Walsh has 30 days to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court. Walsh said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon that he was aware of the ruling, but had not read the entire order due to the holiday.
“I’m not sure,” Walsh said of his next steps. “However, I will review (the ruling) and then obviously have a better comment for you.”