After police discovered the frail, battered body of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown in her home in 2006, authorities say her stepfather was quick to admit he had bound her to a chair with duct tape and beat her on a daily basis.
Videotaped and written statements by Cesar Rodriguez — combined with grim crime scene photos from the room where the victim was tortured, starved and forced to urinate in a litter box — have brought jurors to tears at his high-profile murder trial in Brooklyn.
But the emotion in the jury box hasn't discouraged Rodriguez's lawyer from forging ahead with a brazen strategy: effectively putting Nixzmary and her mother on trial.
The aggressive former prosecutor, Jeffrey Schwartz, has portrayed the mother as the real killer, calling her a "monster" and mocking her as "Mommy Dearest." He has also labeled Nixzmary a violent and uncontrollable "little Houdini" — a reference to her supposed knack at slipping out of the makeshift restraints devised by her parents to keep her from attacking her younger siblings.
Schwartz has said he wants to call the mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, as the first defense witness. The maneuver was expected to interrupt testimony next week while a judge hears arguments about whether to allow Santiago, who faces a separate trial later this year, to take the stand.
'Trying to blame a 7-year-old'
In her opening statement last month, prosecutor Ama Dwimoh asked jurors to reject any attempt to demonize the girl, describing her as a defenseless, innocent child who weighed only 36 pounds at her death.
"He wasn't no daddy," Dwimoh said of Rodriguez. "Daddies don't blame their child for their actions. Murderers do."
The defense's no-holds-barred tactics could backfire, said Peter Guadanigno, a defense attorney who once prosecuted child abuse cases in Brooklyn.
"They're trying to blame a 7-year-old's behavior," he said. "It's disgusting and a jury will be offended."
The attempt to put the mother on the witness stand amounts to "smoke and mirrors," he added, since her lawyers would undoubtedly advise to her invoke her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Rodriguez, 29, has pleaded not guilty to charges he killed Nixzmary on Jan. 11, 2006, with a blow to the head while punishing her for stealing yogurt. News of the death shocked the city and hastened child welfare reforms.
Mysterious jar discovered
In his opening statements, Schwartz told jurors Rodriguez was an unemployed security guard who was struggling to feed a family of six small children. His client's only crimes, he said, were being a strict disciplinarian and lying to authorities to protect his wife.
"Isn't it a fact that Cesar Rodriguez was taking credit for all the injuries Nixzaliz Santiago inflicted?" the attorney asked a detective earlier this week in a cross-examination met with a barrage of objections by prosecutors.
During earlier testimony by another detective about the crime scene, the defense sought to emphasize an odd piece of evidence: a tiny jar containing a murky, brownish substance, discovered on a messy bedroom dresser. Investigators have said the substance appeared to be human tissue, which the mother claimed to have been given by the hospital after she had a miscarriage.
"It was explained to me that it was a fetus," the NYPD investigator said.
Speaking to reporters, Schwartz called that "bombshell" testimony that supported the theory that a demented Nixzaliz Santiago had preserved the medical remnants of a recent miscarriage. The mother "blamed Nixzmary for the death of her (unborn) child," he said, and suggested she avenged the death with the fatal beating.
Schwartz's brash approach has at times raised eyebrows in the courtroom. But the 45-year-old has brushed aside the criticism by saying that someone has to represent — and try to win acquittals — for those accused of the most heinous crimes. He insisted he has never meant "to imply even for a millisecond that (Nixzmary) deserved or brought this on herself."
Rodriguez takes the stand
Earlier this week, jurors heard the defendant recount his stepdaughter's last night in a calm voice.
Nixzmary had pilfered the yogurt from the refrigerator and damaged a computer printer, Rodriguez said in a taped interview played by prosecutors. As punishment, he stuck her head under a running bathtub faucet.
"I took her and threw some cold water on her ... to make her think," he said.
Investigators suspect the girl's head was smashed against the faucet — something her stepfather denied doing. But in the same tape he 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."
At another point, Rodriguez paused at length when confronted with a Polaroid of Nixzmary's face and asked to explain why she had two black eyes.
"She managed to do that to herself," he finally responded.
His last memory of Nixzmary alive he said was breathing heavily and moaning on the floor of her room. He never called for help, he added, even though, "I'd never seen her more pale."
Some watching in the jury of 10 women and two men shook their heads, held their hands to their mouths and wiped away tears. When the courtroom lights were turned on, a court officer passed them tissues.