Closing arguments in Nixzmary trial

October 14, 2008 4:52:37 PM PDT
Jurors were offered two pictures Tuesday of Nixzmary Brown's mother: a concerned mom who tried to stop her husband from beating the 7-year-old child, and a callous woman who allowed the deadly assault. Closing arguments sketched competing views of Nixzaliz Santiago, charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter in a case that cast a spotlight on New York's troubled child welfare system, hastened reforms and made Nixzmary's name synonymous with child abuse.

Nixzmary died on Jan. 11, 2006, of a vicious blow to the head while being punished for stealing yogurt. She weighed only 36 pounds - about half the average weight for a girl that age.

Her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, was convicted in April of manslaughter for delivering the fatal blow. He dodged a murder conviction.

"There was never any reason in her heart or mind to know or want that man to beat her to death," defense attorney Kathleen Mullin said of Santiago, claiming she was a loving but overworked mother caring for five other children. Mullin suggested the jury find Santiago guilty of criminally negligent homicide, which carries a much shorter potential jail term.

But prosecutor Ama Dwimoh said Santiago bore responsibility for her daughter's death.

"If the mother doesn't protect their child, who does?" Dwimoh said. "This is a woman who is obsessed with her man, who chooses her man over her daughter."

Mullin said that on the evening of Nixzmary's death, Santiago told Rodriguez twice to stop hitting the girl.

But then she went to the front of their apartment to put her babies to bed. Rodriguez took Nixzmary to a cold back bedroom, shut the door, covered her mouth with duct tape so she couldn't scream for her mother, and beat her, Mullin said.

Santiago "had no idea what was going on in that back room," Mullin said. "What she did not know is what the evidence has taught us. He shut that door, and he beat that girl to death."

Dwimoh said evidence didn't suggest Rodriguez bound the girl's mouth and beat her in the back room, and Santiago believed that if she blamed Rodriguez, she wouldn't be punished.

Dwimoh said Santiago had an obligation as a mother to call for help after she saw the battered girl, but she did nothing because she simply didn't care.

"She had a duty to nurture and a duty to act," the prosecutor said. "She had every reason to believe she was going to lose this little girl, and she doesn't call for an ambulance. She doesn't do anything until it's too late."

Prosecutors argued Nixzmary was dead by the time Santiago called to report the child unconscious.

But Mullin argued Santiago was afraid of her husband and unaware the child was dying. During Mullin's statement, Santiago wept loudly as the attorney spoke of her client's children and the events that lead to Nixzmary's death.

Mullin also sought in her nearly three-hour closing statement to discredit witness testimony, claiming the sequence of events that led to Nixzmary's death was mischaracterized by several witnesses eager to demonize Santiago.

The packed Brooklyn courtroom included Santiago's mother, Maria Gonzalez. The two spoke briefly after the proceedings but did not discuss Nixzmary.

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