Retrial case dismissed for daycare worker previously convicted then released in baby's death

ByMaher Kawash, ABC7 Chicago Digital Team WLS logo
Friday, October 7, 2022
Retrial case dismissed for daycare worker previously convicted then released in baby's death
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Jennifer Del Prete, a Hickory Hills daycare worker, served nine years in prison for the death of Isabella Zielinski in Will County.

WILL COUNTY, Ill. (WLS) -- Once convicted and sent to prison for more than nine years for shaking a baby to death 20 years ago, Jennifer Del Prete is not only no longer convicted, she now knows she won't have to face another trial.

"I'm still in shock. I can't really sleep very well," Del Prete said. "I cry every couple of hours."

It's a sense of freedom Del Prete never thought she'd experience again.

She was working at a Hickory Hills daycare in 2002 when she says 14-month-old Isabella Zielinski stopped breathing under her care.

"All I know is, what happened to her with me was that she stopped breathing and I exhausted all extremes that you would do with a baby," Del Prete explained. 'Check her throat, put her on her tummy, do the Heimlich -- tried everything."

Then, 10 months after that incident Zielinski died.

Prosecutors accused Del Prete of shaking the baby and a state medical expert testified that the child's injuries were inflicted on the day she stopped breathing.

However, medical records obtained by Del Prete's attorneys later revealed the infant suffered a brain injury days earlier.

Judge orders Jennifer Del Prete released from jail early after shaken baby murder conviction

"I remember it like yesterday, and I know in certainty that I did everything in my power to keep her alive," Del Prete.

A Romeoville detective wrote a memo expressing concerns about the autopsy, saying that a pathologist disagreed with the shaken baby syndrome theory.

Journalism students at Northwestern University's Medill Justice Project later uncovered that memo and helped exonerate her in 2014, leading to Del Prete's release from prison.

But the possibility of another trial loomed, until this week when a judge dismissed the case over a lack of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

"I'm hurt. I didn't even get an apology, which isn't gonna make up for anything but it would've been nice, but it's just more hurt than anything for me," Del Prete said.

Del Prete said it's been a difficult two decades for her entire family, specifically for her two kids who are now 25 and 33 years old.

"All my family now suffers from anxiety [and] depression," she said. "Nothing they could do or say can make up for all that, especially my children."

Now working at a hotel in Galena, Del Prete has her eyes set on possibly starting a new business and traveling with loved ones.

"We're gonna go on some trips. My sister told me to get my passport ready right away. She wants to go to Jamaica," Del Prete said.

It's the freedom they've been praying for, but Del Prete says Zielinski and her family will always be on her mind.

"I would tell them to their face that I did everything in my power to help her and I never harmed her," Del Prete said. "I did everything I could to help her and I'm very sorry for her loss and hope they have peace."

ABC7 reached out to the Zielinski family to get their reaction to the judge's decision not to retry Del Prete, but we have not heard back.