Grandmother's defense calls 2 to stand in murder trial
SCHENECTADY Closing arguments could come Monday in the murder trial of Gloria Nelligan, accused of beating her 8-year-old grandson to death.
The prosecution rested its case Friday morning. Nelligan’s defense put on two character witnesses Friday morning. It will put on at least one more witness Monday morning, and then officially announce whether Nelligan herself will take the stand.
Nelligan has already been heard from in the prosecution’s case, through nearly eight hours of police interrogation video filmed in two sessions over consecutive days.
In a written statement produced during the questioning, Nelligan admitted to hitting the boy with a back scratcher five times, but also said the boy had been acting out and hurting himself before he died.
Nelligan, 43, is standing trial on one count each of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the Feb. 23 death of Sha’hiim Nelligan, of whom she had custody.
Prosecutors say Nelligan beat her grandson so severely that swelling caused his heart to stop because of a lack of blood. The beating, prosecutors allege, was over a pack of gum Sha’hiim had stolen from a store days earlier.
Nelligan has contended the boy hit his head on the bathtub on the morning he died. She said he was acting out and hurting himself in the days leading to his death. Though she consented to a second interview the next day, after autopsy results were known to police, her account changed little, her attorney has said.
Friday morning’s session was brief, even with testimony from two character witnesses and lawyers’ arguments over a defense motion that the case be dismissed.
Such motions are standard but rarely successful. In brief arguments, both attorneys rehashed their opening statements.
Nelligan defense attorney Mark Caruso argued that the prosecution offered no proof Nelligan created a grave risk of death, or consciously disregarded that risk.
“There’s been no proof of some wicked or evil or inhuman state of mind,” Caruso said, arguing the murder charge be dismissed.
Prosecutor Christina Tremante-Pelham countered that one blow might not cause that grave risk of death. But, “after blow two, three, dozen one, dozen two, several dozen, over several hours,” that risk would be evident.
Nelligan also told police that she saw the bruising, and that Sha’hiim became unable to stand.
“It went beyond just reckless,” Tremante-Pelham told presiding Judge Karen Drago. “She engaged in a brutal and prolonged and ultimately fatal beating of this child.”
After hearing the arguments, Drago denied the defense motion, leading to the start of the defense case.
The first defense witness was Walter Simpkins, who is involved in several local groups, including Community Fathers Inc. and the Hamilton Hill Arts Center. He said he had known the family for at least nine years.
“We always saw that she brought the children in and was very attentive to them,” Simpkins said. “Any time we asked her to do any type of volunteer work for the center, she was always very agreeable to that.”
The other defense witness was Judy Atchinson, executive director and founder of the after-school organization QUEST.
Atchinson saw Nelligan and the children frequently at the program, as often as two or three times a week. The last time she saw them was the Wednesday before Sha’hiim died.
The relationship she saw between Nelligan and Sha’hiim was a loving one, and one of concern. Atchinson said she is a mandated reporter of suspected child abuse. Though the judge barred her from answering specifically, Caruso’s questioning suggested that Atchinson never saw anything to trigger a child abuse report related to Nelligan.
“She was a good neighbor, a good friend, a good person to go to when you had problems,” Atchinson said.
Tremante-Pelham asked both character witnesses if they were in Nelligan’s home the days of the alleged beatings. They were not.
Tremante-Pelham also countered Atchinson’s contention in early news accounts that Nelligan could “barely walk” by showing surveillance footage from the store where Nelligan took Sha’hiim to apologize for taking the gum.
In the video, Nelligan walked unaided into the store, though Atchinson noted that Nelligan’s gait indicated difficulty walking. Nelligan has used a cane in court.
Regardless, Tremant-Pelham asked Atchinson if she was aware of any problems Nelligan had with her arms. Atchinson said she was not.