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Thursday, April 4, 2013 11:04 am

Upping the ante

Jennifer Watkins faces jail

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Jennifer Watkins

Jennifer Watkins, the erstwhile Ashland resident who won’t let her five-year-old daughter visit with the child’s paternal grandparents, may soon become a felon.

Whether criminal charges will make a difference in the visitation battle isn’t clear.

Cass County Circuit Court Judge Robert Hardwick, Jr. last week issued an arrest warrant for Watkins when she didn’t show up for a hearing in the visitation case. She’s now facing criminal contempt of court charges, which could force her return to Illinois from Florida where she moved in 2010 after Hardwick ordered visits between the little girl and her grandparents.

Rather than allow visits, Watkins spent five months in a Florida jail in 2011, ultimately winning an extradition fight. The issue then was whether someone could be extradited for civil contempt of court. Now, the charges are criminal, with bail set at $25,000.

“Will it accomplish what they want?” said a local criminal defense attorney who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I don’t know. But it could put her in jail, which might give them some satisfaction.”

Judge Hardwick made his feelings about Watkins clear in 2010 when he ruled against her in the visitation case and told her to let her daughter Sidney see the child’s deceased father’s parents.

“There is an evil in you, Jennifer, that I don’t understand,” Hardwick said before ruling in favor of the child’s paternal grandparents. “It’s hard to imagine a case like this exists.”

The case was born in the killing of Sidney’s father, who was gunned down from behind two days before Thanksgiving in 2008 when he went to the Ashland home where Jennifer Watkins lived with her parents and grandparents to pick up the child for a court-ordered visit. The killing came in the midst of a bitter custody battle as the child’s father fought to spend time with his daughter during a pending divorce.

Neither Watkins nor any of her relatives who were present during the shooting cooperated in the criminal investigation that ended with a murder conviction against Shirley Skinner, Watkins’ grandmother. Dale and Penny Watkins, Sidney’s grandparents, have sued Jennifer Watkins and her family for wrongful death.

Cass County state’s attorney Matt Mays, who is handling the criminal prosecution of Jennifer Watkins, could not be reached for comment.

The type of criminal contempt of court charge that Jennifer Watkins now faces is rare in Illinois, but the consequences can be serious. In 2010, a Cook County man who refused to testify in a murder trial got a nine-year sentence for the same charge, although the sentence was cut to four years on appeal.

Jennifer Watkins could, at least theoretically, be charged again for criminal contempt if she’s convicted in the pending contempt case and does time but still doesn’t allow court-ordered visits, according to one legal expert. She might also avoid jail entirely, said the expert who insisted on anonymity.

“Here’s the hammer they have: We’re going to send you to prison for – pick a number – four years,” the expert said. “If you want to agree to enter a plea and receive probation with a condition that Sidney has visitation with her grandparents, we’re amenable to that.”

What might ultimately happen is anyone’s guess.

“My gut tells me that they’re ratcheting up the circumstances and they’ve given this matter some thought,” the legal expert said. “They’re going to try this to see what happens. I don’t think there’s a nuclear option here. If there is, it doesn’t come to mind readily.”

Penny Watkins said she is confident that she and her husband Dale will one day see their granddaughter again. She said she last spoke with Sidney nearly a year ago by telephone on the child’s fifth birthday. The visitation case, she said, is not about her or about Jennifer Watkins. It is about a little girl who deserves to know her father through his surviving family, a girl who should know that there are people on her dad’s side of the family who love her.

“It’s about what’s best for Sidney,” Penny Watkins said.

Penny Watkins said that she has spoken to Jennifer Watkins by telephone but can’t convince her to allow court-ordered visits.

“I’ve tried to say to her, ‘This is crazy – Sidney is the one who’s being hurt in all this,’” Penny Watkins said. “’No one wants to take Sidney from you, you’re her mother.’”

Penny Watkins said she’ll keep trying.

“I still have the faith,” she said. “My son loved his daughter – he gave his life for her. How could I give up on it?”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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