Judge sentences Nixzmary's mom to 40 years

November 12, 2008 5:37:18 PM PST
The mother of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown was sentenced to 40 1/3 to 43 years behind bars on Wednesday for doing nothing as the battered and malnourished child lay dying in their home - a case so shocking it hastened child welfare reforms. Nixzaliz Santiago, convicted last month of manslaughter, assault and other charges, was sentenced to more than a decade longer in prison than her husband, Cesar Rodriguez. He is serving 29 years on a manslaughter conviction for delivering the fatal blow after Nixzmary was caught stealing yogurt.

The mother was convicted of several lesser counts that led to her receiving a tougher sentence than the stepfather. Asked about the discrepancy in the prison terms, Assistant District Attorney Ama Dwimoh said the 30-year-old mother deserved a harsh punishment for an "act of omission" - failing to save her child's life by taking her to the hospital.

"Being held accountable is one and the same under the law," the prosecutor told reporters outside court. "It's not just you beat her and that's it."

Santiago's defense attorney did not immediately respond to a phone message. Her lawyers had argued at trial that she was so traumatized and frightened by Rodriguez that she was incapable of helping Nixzmary.

Both trials raised questions of whether mothers should be held to a higher standard than fathers. Prosecutors accused Santiago of not doing her duty to protect her helpless daughter, saying she only summoned help hours after the victim had died.

Some jurors visibly cringed and wept when shown 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.

The evidence also showed there had been obvious 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 of the city's child welfare agency. 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.

Prosecutors had said after Santiago's conviction on Oct. 17 that she faced up to 33 years in prison, but the combined effect of all the guilty counts brought the maximum sentence to 43 years.

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