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 revived a national dialogue about gun violence and roiled the military shipbuilding city of Newport News.
Taylor, 26, still faces a separate sentencing in December on the state level for felony child neglect. And Zwerner is suing the school system for $40 million, alleging that administrators ignored multiple warnings the boy had a gun.
U.S. District Judge Mark S. Davis handed down the exact punishment prosecutors requested.
“This case cries out for a sentence of imprisonment,” the judge said.
Davis said there was a “direct line” between Zwerner’s wounds and Taylor’s decision to mix heavy marijuana use with owning a gun. Taylor’s son would never have obtained the weapon if his mother had obeyed the law, the judge said.
The other children in Zwerner’s classroom “are going to grow up in this community … dealing with that for the rest of their lives,” Davis added.
Before Taylor received her sentence, Zwerner described the shooting’s nearly incalculable impact on her life. She spent nearly two weeks in the hospital after the bullet struck her left hand and chest, breaking bones and puncturing a lung.
Zwerner told the judge that she has endured five surgeries just to try to return motion to her left hand. The psychological cost includes post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression.
“I have nightmares of gore, blood and death — always involving a firearm,” she said.
Zwerner, who no longer works for the school system, said she’s lost her sense of herself and has suffered “massive financial loss.”
“I feel as if I’ve lost my purpose — I loved children,” she said, adding, “I contend daily with deep emotional scars.”
Gene Rossi, one of Taylor’s attorneys, read aloud a brief statement from Taylor: “I am extremely sorry and very remorseful for my actions.” Taylor said she would feel that remorse “for the rest of my life.”
Taylor’s grandfather, Calvin Taylor, has had full custody of her son, now age 7, since January’s shooting. He told the judge how sorry he was for what happened to Zwerner.
He said the boy was placed in a first-grade classroom despite having spent only 54 days in a formal school setting, in prekindergarten and kindergarten, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The elder Taylor said the boy is now “doing wonderful” and was “star student of the week” last week at school.
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 Joe Biden’s son.
Federal prosecutors in Taylor’s case had argued that her “chronic, persistent and … life-affecting abuse extends this case far beyond any occasional and/or recreational use.”
“This case is not a marijuana case,” they wrote in a brief to the court. “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 lying about her drug use on a federal form when she bought the gun.
Taylor’s attorneys had asked the judge for probation and home confinement. They argued Taylor needs counseling for issues that include schizoaffective disorder, a condition that shares symptoms with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
They also said she needs treatment for marijuana addiction.
“Addiction is a disease and incarceration is not the cure,” her attorneys wrote to the court.
Taylor’s attorneys also argued that the U.S. Supreme Court could eventually strike down the federal ban on drug users owning guns. For example, the 5th 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.
Taylor’s son told authorities he obtained his mother’s gun by climbing onto a drawer to reach the top of a dresser, where the firearm was in his mom’s purse. Taylor initially told investigators she had secured her gun with a trigger lock, but investigators never found one.
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.