Zoraida Magali Conde Hernandez, who authorities say left her infant boy in a hot car last summer, killing the child, was ordered Friday afternoon to complete two-and-a-half years of probation in Arlington County Circuit Court.
The 32-year-old Alexandria woman entered an Alford plea, which means she maintains her innocence in light of the felony child neglect charge against her but pleaded guilty after determining that would be in her best interest.
Judge Louise DiMatteo accepted a plea agreement between Conde Hernandez and the Arlington County Commonwealth's Attorney's Office and ordered the woman to complete one year and six months of supervised probation, followed by a year of unsupervised probation.
Conde Hernandez, who is raising her four other children with the help of her mother and boyfriend, must also comply with any conditions set forth by Alexandria Child Protective Services and undergo any mental health counseling as directed by her probation officer.
If she holds up her end of the agreement, the court will dismiss the charge against her.
Commonwealth's Attorney Theo Stamos called Friday's action "an appropriate outcome to a difficult case."
"To my mind, there was never a question about whether to bring charges," she told Patch. "This was never about punishment. It's always been about accountability."
By entering an Alford plea on Friday, Conde Hernandez avoids a three-day jury trial, which had been scheduled to start Monday.
Had the case gone to trial, the state would have had to prove that Conde Hernandez willfully neglected her child, causing him to die of hyperthermia.
'Substantial and Overwhelming'
On July 5, 2013, Conde Hernandez was responsible for dropping off three of her five children at daycare before work.
She took her 2-year-old to daycare, and then dropped off her 12-year-old. Nathan, who was 8 months old, was to be the final stop. All three daycares were within close proximity to one another, Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Molly Newton said in court.
But Nathan never made it to daycare. He was in a car seat facing the back of the vehicle.
Conde Hernandez, an administrative assistant at the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, arrived at work at about 8:40 a.m. that day, and then left at about 3:30 p.m.
She left work, picked up 2-year-old Emily and was going to get diapers before getting Nathan from his Head Start program. Only when Emily started throwing a tantrum did she notice Nathan was still in his car seat.
He was purple. She rushed him to Inova Alexandria Hospital, where doctors tried unsuccessfully to revive him. Nathan was pronounced dead 10 minutes later.
His temperature was 108 degrees.
Standing in court on Friday, wearing a royal blue long-sleeve shirt and black skirt, Conde Hernandez agreed that was the evidence the state would present against her.
DiMatteo called the evidence "substantial and overwhelming."
A 'Constellation of Considerations'
News of the incident in July sparked a wide range of community reactions: horror, anger, shock, confusion — and compassion.
Stamos told Patch that a "constellation of considerations" went into prosecutors' decision to reach a plea agreement. Her office was aware of the different reactions in the community, too, and took that as an indicator of what a potential jury pool might look like.
Conde Hernandez spent about 12 days in Arlington County jail after initially being charged with child neglect, preventing her from having any contact with her four other children. She was allowed to post a $25,000 bond on July 18 and a judge ordered that she still could not have any unsupervised contact with her children.
During that time, a Guardian ad Litem was appointed to review the other children's living environment and determine that they were adequately cared for. After her release, she had to undergo a mental health evaluation and risk assessment, and Alexandria Child Protective Services would determine if she would be allowed to live in the same residence as the children. Eventually, she was allowed to return home and continue to raise her children without supervision.
Newton said in court that the brief incarceration "served a purpose." She also acknowledged that some jurisdictions in Virginia would not have prosecuted the crime to begin with — and the potential difficulty of proving willful neglect in the Conde Hernandez case.
"We want her to be accountable," Newton told the judge. "And we know by entering this plea, she will be."
Conde Hernandez was indicted in November on a Class 4 felony charge, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and up to a $100,000 fine.
Through the plea agreement, the charge was amended to a Class 6 felony, which means Conde Hernandez faced — or will face, if she violates the agreement — between one and five years in prison or up to 12 months in the county jail and a fine of up to $2,500, either or both.
"It was never that we thought she should go to prison for 10 years and be separated from her other children, but it's a crime, and it was prosecuted as such," Stamos said.
Newton said it was important to remember that Nathan was the victim in this case.
"It's tragic, but we have a job to do and we have to focus in the end on what we're trying to accomplish," she said.
Prosecutors said Friday afternoon that they weren't aware of a similar case happening in Arlington in at least 28 years.
'Beyond the Years of Probation'
One Alexandria couple — Tom and Crystal O'Neill — took it upon themselves to start a fundraising campaign to help cover Conde Hernandez's legal expenses.
Following a Jan. 16 Patch article on that effort, the fund grew from about $4,000 to about $6,000. Crystal O'Neill told Patch in an email Friday afternoon that the money raised so far "only scratches the surface" of the debt Conde Hernandez has already incurred.
"We learned of the plea as well and are happy that Zoraida and her family will now be able to turn their focus to healing as a family. This tragedy and their love for Nathan will always stay with them, far beyond the years of probation," Crystal O'Neill said in an email.
"...Our hope is that others in the community will continue to contribute to the fundraising trust to help address these expenses and further enable the the family to focus their energy and resources on healing."
Any money raised beyond what is needed to cover Conde Hernandez's legal costs will be donated to the Children's Defense Fund, she stated.
Conde Hernandez, through her attorney Rebecca Wade, declined to comment to Patch following her court appearance.
"Even if you feel like you have a 90 percent chance of winning, it's not something you could pass up," Wade told Patch, referring to the plea agreement. "Sometimes it's better to win without fighting."
- After Baby's Death in Hot Car, Fundraiser Aims to Bolster Mother's Defense (Jan. 16, 2014)
- WaPo: Case Moves Forward Against Woman Whose Baby Died After Being Left in Car (Oct. 28, 2013)
- Judge Sets $25K Bond for Woman Accused of Leaving Baby in Hot Car (July 18, 2013)
- Infant Death Case: Court Orders Home Review Before Considering Bond for Mother (July 11, 2013)
- 2 Babies Dead: How Does a Parent Forget a Child in a Hot Car — And How to Prevent It (July 8, 2013)
- Mother Charged Following Infant's Death (July 6, 2013)
- Police: 8-month-old Baby Left in Hot Car Dies (July 5, 2013)