No verdict yet in Nixzmary murder

March 13, 2008 5:59:06 PM PDT
Jurors have concluded their first day of deliberations without a verdict at the trial of the stepfather accused of torturing and killing 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown.The jury began deliberating Thursday afternoon in state Supreme Court in Brooklyn. It resumes on Friday.

Prosecutors say Cesar Rodriguez killed his stepdaughter in January 2006 after catching her stealing yogurt. They say he tried to shift the blame to the starving child's mother.

A defense lawyer has cast the defendant as an overwhelmed family man who punished the unruly girl with beatings. The lawyer has blamed the girl's mother for the killing.

Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty to murder. The mother also has pleaded not guilty and faces a separate trial.

A prosecutor and a defense lawyer underscored their versions of the girl's violent death in closing arguments Wednesday.

Assistant District Attorney Ama Dwimoh displayed a gruesome crime scene photo of Nixzmary's battered corpse - skeletal, topless and splayed on a wooden floor - as she alternately scolded and mocked Rodriguez.

"He's nothing short of a murderer," she told jurors, her voice rising. "Cesar Rodriguez is a murderer!"

Moments later, Dwimoh positioned herself in front of the defense table and glared at Rodriguez.

"Now he's having you believe, 'It ain't me, it's my wife.' Hmm!" she told the jury of 10 women and two men.

Finally, gazing up at the photo, she argued: "There is nothing that 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown could ever do to deserve that."

Earlier, defense attorney Jeffrey Schwartz had sought to convince jurors that while his client disciplined the girl harshly, her mother dealt the deadly blow.

Rodriguez, 29, "is guilty of child abuse," the lawyer said. But he added: "You have not seen evidence in this courtroom that has proven murder or manslaughter charges."

Authorities say the victim had been routinely bound to a small chair, whipped with a belt and forced to use a cat litter box as a toilet - allegations that shocked the city and hastened child welfare reforms.

The prosecution's case relied heavily on a taped interview of Rodriguez saying that on Nixzmary's last night, he stuck her head under running bath water "to make her think." Investigators suspect the girl's head was smashed against the faucet - something her stepfather denied doing.

In the tape, the stepfather conceded, "Sometimes she'd get me real angry, and I used to just throw her on the floor. ... She was always lying to me about everything."

Schwartz asked jurors to focus instead on the testimony of a jailhouse snitch, who claimed that behind bars the girl's mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, admitted being haunted by the death and indicated she delivered the fatal blow.

It was "the confession of the sick, of the demented, of the disturbed mother," said Schwartz, referring to Santiago as "Mommy Dearest."

Dwimoh countered that the stepfather and the mother, who also has pleaded not guilty to murder and is awaiting a separate trial later this year, were at fault.

"Don't worry about Nixzaliz Santiago," the prosecutor said. "She'll have her day. Today is Cesar Rodriguez's day."