July 31, 2014

Belleville mom gets probation for giving underage son alcohol prior to his death

A Belleville mother who was accused of providing alcohol to her underage son prior to his death last year in a traffic crash will not serve any prison time.

Ginger Zehner-Denton, 40, was sentenced to 24 months of probation Thursday morning by Circuit Judge Bob Haida. She pleaded guilty to unlawful delivery of alcohol, a Class A misdemeanor.

"It's often times clear to me what the appropriate reaction is to a crime being committed," Haida said. "This case has left me with the feeling that no matter what I do, it will pale in comparison to what you must live with everyday," he told Zehner-Denton.

Zehner-Denton initially was charged with unlawful delivery of alcohol resulting in the death of a minor -- her son Stephen Zehner -- which was a class 4 felony. However, the felony charge was dismissed as part of the plea deal with prosecutors.

Stephen Zehner, 18, of Belleville died as a result of injuries suffered in a one-vehicle car crash at 2:12 a.m. on Jan. 26, 2013, near Belleville. The St. Clair County Sheriff's Department has not released Stephen Zehner's blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash.

During the sentencing Thursday, both Zehner-Denton and her attorney, John O'Gara, said Stephen Zehner's blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit. In Illinois, a driver is considered intoxicated with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent.

Zehner-Denton admitted to purchasing a six-pack of beer and a pint of whiskey between Jan. 25-26 and providing the alcohol to Stephen Zehner. However, she told the judge Thursday that both the beer and whiskey were recovered unopened from Stephen Zehner's vehicle following the crash.

"All along I've never denied the fact I bought a half-pint of whiskey and a six-pack of beer and put it in his car," Zehner-Denton stated in court. "The six-pack and half pint was still in the car."

She said she's been unable to find closure in the death of her only son. "I'm sorry," Zehner-Denton said through tears. She was visibly shaking during her statement to Haida.

O'Gara said there is "no relationship" between Zehner-Denton providing alcohol to her son and him getting into the fatal crash. He said Stephen Zehner not only had alcohol in his system but marijuana and opiates.

O'Gara alleged Stephen Zehner consumed the alcohol and other drugs in his system at another parent's house, but did not provide a name.

O'Gara said Zehner-Denton is already serving a life sentence as she feels responsible for her son's death. "That punishment no person in this room would want to share," he said during the sentencing. "It's all day, everyday."

Zehner's passenger, Megan Webb, who was 16 at the time, suffered serious injuries in the crash and spent three months at St. Louis Children's Hospital.

St. Clair County Assistant State's Attorney Joslyn Anthony recommended Zehner-Denton serve six months in the St. Clair County Jail.

Anthony told Haida it was a "difficult challenge" for the State's Attorney's Office to determine an appropriate recommendation for punishment given the "unique circumstances."

However, Anthony said prosecutors felt six months in jail would be appropriate to send a message to Zehner-Denton and the community that "giving or selling alcohol to a minor is potentially dangerous. It's no laughing matter to give alcohol to a minor," she said.

Haida said he didn't feel a prison sentence was "appropriate under the circumstances. Wherever you are in life while you are still drawing breathe, you will be punished," Haida told Zehner-Denton. "You lost your son. You don't need to be in jail to be tormented by those thoughts."

Anthony said none of the victims involved provided a victim impact statement, which are typically read during a sentencing hearing.

Zehner-Denton's mother, Mary Corbitt of New Baden, spoke on her daughter's behalf.

In spite of the circumstances, Corbitt said Zehner-Denton has been doing "excellent. I'm very proud of her," Corbitt said.

She praised her daughter for continuing her education at Southwestern Illinois College and maintaining a 3.8 grade point average. Zehner-Denton aspires to be a para legal with an emphasis in family law.

"Stephen was so proud of her, because he was so into school," Corbitt said, adding Stephen and his mother thought they could possibly attend school at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville together.

Corbitt remembered her grandson as a "responsible kid" and said drinking and driving was "out of character for him." She said Stephen Zehner excelled in school and tutored other students.

Zehner-Denton has also had to deal with the sudden death of her estranged husband from a heart attack, according to her mother.

"She's doing pretty good considering," Corbitt said. "She has really tried to get past this. I didn't want this to kill her spirit."

As part of her probation, Haida ordered Zehner-Denton to share her story with others through the county's victim impact panel.

"I do believe you communicating with others your life experiences would be of benefit to some parents," Haida said.

Following the sentencing hearing, Zehner-Denton was embraced by her mother and other supporters outside the courtroom.

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