Judge hears closing arguments in Schenectady grandmother's murder trial
SCHENECTADY Gloria Nelligan was not the callous person prosecutors portrayed her to be, her defense attorney told a judge Monday morning in closing arguments at her murder trial.
When she realized how bad her grandson really was, she tried to help him, screaming for her daughters to dial 911, defense attorney Mark Caruso said.
“If she had this callousness, she wouldn’t say anything,” Caruso said.
Prosecutors, though, portrayed that call for 911 in a different light. The signs that Sha’hiim was in serious physical trouble were abundant and evident for hours, they said.
Her state of mind was evident, prosecutor Christina Tremante-Pelham told the judge, in her initial comments to paramedics trying to save her grandson’s life, which made no mention that she had struck Sha’hiim.
“If the defendant cared what happened to Sha’hiim, she would have gotten him the help he needed while he was alive,” Tremante-Pelham told the judge. “But she didn’t. She cared not about him, but about herself.”
Attorneys gave their closing arguments Monday before presiding Judge Karen Drago.
Drago alone must now decide whether Nelligan is guilty of murder or some lesser charge in the death of her grandson Sha’hiim. Nelligan chose a bench trial over a jury trial.
Drago is expected to return to court today at 11 a.m. to announce whether she has a verdict. If she has a verdict, she will read it then. If not, she will resume her work.
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.
She also admitted to striking Sha’hiim, though only a limited number of times.
Expected to be central to Drago’s considerations is Nelligan’s state of mind at the time. To prove the murder count, prosecutors didn’t have to show she intended death, but acted in a depraved indifference to human life, actions that resulted in his death.
Caruso argued that Nelligan could not have foreseen that a back scratcher, allegedly used as a weapon, could cause death. Reasonable people discipline their children and sometimes use hands or other items to do that, Caruso said.
“That does not mean reasonable parents are trying to kill or cause serious physical injury to their children when they do that,” Caruso said.
Caruso argued that, at best, his client was guilty of criminally negligent homicide, a lower-level felony.
In his opening, Caruso noted that those legal distinctions, along with the underlying nature of the case, led the defense to skip a jury trial in favor of a judge deciding the case.
That was evident with both attorneys citing previous case law in their arguments, something they wouldn’t do in front of a jury.
Tremante-Pelham argued that Nelligan was guilty of a sustained, torturous assault, and that Nelligan saw the boy’s injuries but did nothing to get him help and even continued the assault in spite of the visible injuries.
Those actions, or lack of action, increase the case to murder, Tremante-Pelham said.
Tremante-Pelham recounted testimony that Sha’hiim literally had injuries from head to toe.
Caruso argued that those doing the autopsy couldn’t say exactly how many times he was struck. Tremante-Pelham noted testimony that the strikes were too numerous to count, that they blended together.
And the autopsy’s findings were “completely inconsistent” with Nelligan’s account to investigators of how Sha’hiim was injured, the prosecutor said.
Tremante-Pelham said Sha’hiim was struck dozens to hundreds of times dating back as early as the previous morning.
Caruso argued that when Nelligan realized how serious Sha’hiim’s condition was, she called for paramedics. His previous condition she attributed to symptoms of his medication.
Tremante-Pelham countered the symptoms weren’t the same, citing medical testimony. Tremante-Pelham also played excerpts of Nelligan’s eight-hour questioning by police, in which she recounted that she saw the boy’s bruises and that Sha’hiim could hardly stand.
“She knew she was harming him because she could see his injuries and hear his cries,” Tremante-Pelham said. “She beat his already injured body even after seeing it, inflicting injury after injury. It was brutal.”
Nelligan’s intent with the repeated strikes was clear, to harm Sha’hiim, Tremante-Pelham said. At one point Tremante-Pelham told Drago that Sha’hiim endured a “torture chamber,” tied to a chair with a sock in his mouth.
“Sha’hiim Nelligan didn’t deserve the torture that led what you saw in those photographs,” Tremante-Pelham told Drago of the autopsy photos. “What he does now deserve is justice.”