Nixzmary's mom convicted of manslaughter

October 18, 2008 4:59:23 AM PDT
The mother of a 7-year-old girl was convicted of manslaughter Friday for doing nothing to help as the tiny, malnourished child lay dying on the floor of their apartment, severely beaten by her stepfather. The verdict closes a case that hastened reforms in New York's child welfare agency and made the girl's name, Nixzmary Brown, synonymous with child abuse. Nixzaliz Santiago was convicted of the same charge as her husband, Cesar Rodriguez, even though he delivered the fatal blow that killed the girl, punished after she was caught stealing yogurt.

Santiago looked blankly at the judge Friday as the verdict was read. Brooklyn jurors deliberated three days before convicting her in the January 2006 death.

"The journey for justice for Nixzmary Brown is almost over," said Assistant District Attorney Ama Dwimoh, who prosecuted both of Nixzmary's parents. "Today is a good day for the children because this jury said loud and clearly that parents have a duty. ... It's not just what you do - it's what you don't do."

Santiago, like her husband, was acquitted of murder but convicted on several lesser counts, including assault and endangering the welfare of a child. Rodriguez was convicted in March and is serving 29 years in prison.

Both trials raised questions of whether mothers should be held to a higher standard than fathers. Prosecutors argued that Santiago shockingly failed to protect her child, and didn't seek help until hours after the girl had already died. Because of the lesser convictions, Santiago is facing a maximum of 33 years in prison and could serve more time than her husband.

"She did not do the same as Cesar," said defense attorney Sammy Sanchez. "An angel, Nixzmary Brown, died and that was a tragedy, and we feel terrible for all of the family. But Cesar was the true criminal."

Judge Patricia DiMango set sentencing for Nov. 5. An appeal is planned.

Evidence included grim crime-scene photos from the room where Nixzmary was bound to a chair, starved and forced to urinate in a litter box. She was so malnourished when she died that she weighed only 36 pounds - about half the weight of an average girl that age.

Another defense attorney, Kathleen Mullin, said during closing statements that Santiago tried twice to stop her husband from hitting the girl, and didn't know he continued beating her until she died. She said Santiago was a loving but overworked mother caring for five other children, and was afraid of her husband.

But Dwimoh said Santiago bore responsibility for her daughter's death. "If the mother doesn't protect their child, who does?" she asked.

Dwimoh said Santiago had an obligation to call for help after she saw the battered girl, but simply didn't care.

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

There had long been warning signs. School employees had reported that Nixzmary had been absent for weeks during the previous year. Neighbors noticed unexplained injuries and noted the child appeared underfed. Child welfare workers had been alerted twice but said they found no conclusive evidence of abuse. Most workers involved in the case were later suspended or fired.

The case, coupled with a series of other high-profile deaths of children known to the agency, sparked public demands for reform. City officials responded by bolstering the corps of caseworkers.

Four of Santiago's other children are in foster care with the same family, and her remaining son is living with his father.

Santiago's mother, Maria Gonzalez, is seeking custody of the children and has sued the city over Nixzmary's death.

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