Trial begins for mother of abused girl

September 18, 2008 5:43:40 PM PDT
A mother provoked her husband to abuse her 7-year-old daughter and did nothing to help as the battered, naked girl lay dying on their apartment floor, a prosecutor told jurors Thursday. Nixzaliz Santiago went on trial in an abuse case that cast a spotlight on New York's troubled child welfare system. She has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, manslaughter and reckless endangerment in the death of her daughter, Nixzmary Brown.

The incident two years ago hastened reforms and made Nixzmary's name synonymous with child abuse. The girl was so malnourished when she died that she weighed only 36 pounds - about half the weight of an average girl that age.

Her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, has been convicted of manslaughter for delivering the blow that killed the girl.

In opening statements, the prosecution sought to portray Santiago as a heartless mother who allowed her husband to abuse the girl as she cared for her five other children.

But defense lawyer Sammy Sanchez portrayed Santiago herself as a victim - a loving but "unsophisticated" mother with a fifth-grade education who relied on men for support.

He also hinted that she had emotional problems, telling the Brooklyn state Supreme Court jury of 10 women and two men how she took a miscarried fetus home from the hospital in a jar and put it in her bedroom.

Sanchez blamed Nixzmary's death on Rodriguez, who is serving up to 29 years in prison after being convicted in March. He was acquitted of a murder charge that could have sent him away for life.

Sanchez said Rodriguez became increasingly violent after losing his job in 2005, and Santiago had no choice to but to stay. "She didn't want to go back to a shelter. She had a dilemma," he said.

Prosecutor Ama Dwimoh, who also argued the case against Rodriguez, contrasted the two cases. She said Rodriguez's centered on what he did, while Santiago's was about what she didn't do.

"The last words of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown, moaning in pain and gasping for air, were, 'Mommy, mommy, mommy,"' Dwimoh said. "She didn't love or comfort, and she didn't stop the beatings, and she didn't get any help."

Nixzmary died Jan. 11, 2006, of a vicious blow to the head while being punished for stealing yogurt. Santiago reported finding the child unconscious in the family's three-bedroom apartment.

Investigators discovered she had been a virtual prisoner, confined to a room with dirty mattresses, a broken radiator, a wooden chair to which she was bound with a rope, and a litter box she was forced to use instead of a toilet.

There had been warning signs for years before Nixzmary's death. School employees had reported that she had been absent for weeks the previous year. Neighbors noticed unexplained injuries and noted the child appeared underfed, though Sanchez has said she was just small for her age. Child welfare workers had been alerted twice but said they found no conclusive evidence of abuse.

The trial was to continue Friday.

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