Posted at: 09/16/2013 8:44 PM
| Updated at: 09/16/2013 9:32 PM
By: Steve Flamisch
SCHENECTADY -- On the first day of her trial, Gloria Nelligan covered her eyes and cried as she listened to the 911 call in which a family member breathlessly told a dispatcher that Nelligan's 8-year-old grandson was not breathing.
Nelligan, 43, is accused of subjecting the boy, Sha'hiim Nelligan, to what the prosecution called a "brutal, prolonged, and ultimately fatal beating" over the course of two days in late February. She is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.
The defense acknowledged that Nelligan -- who had legal custody of the child -- struck him "four or five times," but insisted that she did not intend to injure or kill the child. The defense argued it's a case of criminally negligent homicide, at most.
Nelligan, who entered the courtroom with the aid of a cane, wore a white blouse and a floral dress to the start of the trial that will decide her fate. She sat silently as the prosecution and defense delivered opening arguments, and eight witnesses testified in rapid succession.
The prosecution intends to present, as evidence, photographs of the boy's bruised and lifeless body. The defense, fearing those images would sway jurors to the point they would stop listening to testimony, requested a bench trial instead of a jury trial.
The request was granted. Schenectady County Court Judge Karen Drago, and not a jury, will decide the case. If convicted of the most serious charge, Nelligan could face 25 years to life in prison.
The sequence of events that led to Sha'hiim Nelligan's death began on February 19, 2013 when his grandmother learned he had stolen a pack of gum from the Dollar General on State St., prosecutor Christina Tremante said in her opening argument.
Tremante later showed surveillance video of Gloria Nelligan bringing the boy back to the store to pay for the gum. Nelligan is seen grabbing his head several times, and clasping his jaw.
The store's assistant manager testified that Nelligan repeatedly ordered the child to admit to the theft, and that she vowed to "handle this when I get home."
Inside the family's home on 23 Mynderse St. in Schenectady, Nelligan ordered her grandson to write essays and do push-ups as punishment for stealing the gum, Tremante told the court.
On February 22, Nelligan -- dissatisfied with the boy's writing and push-ups -- placed a sock in his mouth, used a jump rope to tie him to a chair, and started beating him with a back-scratcher and other objects, Tremante said. The beating allegedly continued all afternoon and evening.
Nelligan told her daughters -- Sha'hiim's aunts -- to ignore the boy as he lay bruised on the floor, moaning and pleading for help, Tremante said. The next morning, it was one of those girls who made the desperate call to 911.
"My nephew won't wake up," the girl frantically told the dispatcher. "He's 8 years old. Please come."
At that point in the playback of the call, Sha'hiim's mother -- who had visitation rights -- and other family members left the courtroom gallery in tears. Gloria Nelligan sobbed quietly. Her public defender, Mark Caruso, handed several tissues to her.
After a recess in the trial, several of the first responders who answered the 911 call took the stand.
A city police officer testified that he arrived at the house on February 23 to find Gloria Nelligan performing chest compressions on her grandson. She stepped aside as the paramedics went to work.
The officer testified that Nelligan told him the boy had flailed during a bath, striking his head on the tub and becoming dizzy. The officer said Nelligan advised him that the boy had a history of being depressed and hurting himself.
A firefighter-paramedic testified that he found the child lying naked on a bedroom floor with bruises "from his head to his knees." He said the child was not breathing, his skin was blue, and he had no electrical or mechanical activity in his heart.
The firefighter-paramedic testified that Nelligan told him that Sha'hiim had been hurting himself ever since he started talking to his father.
Sha'hiim Nelligan was pronounced dead at Ellis Hospital a short time later. The prosecution attributed his cardiac arrest to blood seeping out his circulatory system during the alleged beatings. Tremante said the boy had "a short life, a brutal death."
"NOT A CASE OF TORTURE"
Caruso, the public defender, told the court there is no evidence to support the prosecution's case.
He admitted Nelligan disciplined her grandson by striking him with her hand -- some people would view that as "good parenting," he argued -- but Caruso said Nelligan did not beat him "the entire day." He acknowledged a "butt slap" and "four or five" strikes.
"Would a reasonable person think that striking someone in the buttocks, the back area, would cause his death?" Caruso asked in his opening argument. "This is not a case of torture, as the DA wants you to believe."
Nelligan did not show the "depraved indifference to human life" that warrants a second-degree murder charge, or the "intent to cause physical injury" that warrants a first-degree manslaughter charge, Caruso argued.
In his cross-examination of a detective who interrogated Nelligan, Caruso asked whether the detective had used the word "awesome" when describing Nelligan's decision to bring the boy back to Dollar General to pay for the gum.
The detective acknowledged he had used the word to praise her, though he noted that was before he had seen the surveillance video.
Caruso said that detectives employed a "good cop, bad cop" routine when questioning Nelligan, and he claimed they told the boy's young aunts they could go home to their uncle only if they completed their statements to police.
He claimed the statements to police differed from the statements made to the public defender's office.
DAY 1 WITNESSES
The following witnesses took the stand during the first day of the trial:
(1) Sha'hiim Nelligan's mother (Gloria Nelligan's daughter)
(2) A city police detective who interrogated Gloria Nelligan
(3) The city police matron who booked Gloria Nelligan
(4) The assistant manager of the Dollar General
(5) The former city police dispatcher who fielded the 911 call
(6) A city police officer who responded to the call
(7) A city police officer who was later posted outside the house
(8) A city firefighter-paramedic who tried to revive Sha'hiim Nelligan
After the eighth witness had left the stand Monday, Judge Drago placed the court in recess until 9:30 a.m. Tuesday.
The prosecutor, Tremante, and the public defender, Caruso, declined to comment on the proceedings. Nelligan's family members -- including Sha'hiim's mother, who was called as the first witness -- also refused to speak to the media.
Cameras are not allowed in the courtroom.