NEW YORK – There had been warning signs for years before 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown died from a vicious blow to the head.
School employees had reported that she had been absent for weeks the previous year. Neighbors noticed unexplained injuries and noted the child appeared underfed and small for her age. Child welfare workers had been alerted twice but said they found no conclusive evidence of abuse.
Two years after the girl's death shocked the city, hastened child welfare reforms and made her name synonymous with child abuse, a jury was picked Wednesday to hear her stepfather's murder trial. Opening statements were to begin that afternoon.
Nixzmary's personal hell is likely to be exposed at trial through symbols of her horrific demise: the rope used to tether her to a chair, the cat-litter box she used as a toilet, the bathtub used to dunk her under cold water.
Authorities say evidence against her stepfather, Cesar Rodriguez, includes crime-scene photos inside the family's three-bedroom apartment and a videotape of the defendant casting blame on the malnourished victim, who weighed 45 pounds at the time of her death.
"Sometimes she used to get me real angry and I used to just throw her," Rodriguez said during a post-arrest interview made public during a family court hearing.
Prosecutor Ama Dwimoh has called it a case of torture. Nixzmary "was beaten repeatedly," Dwimoh said. "She was bound like an animal."
Rodriguez's defense attorney, Jeffrey Schwartz, has sought to blame Nixzmary's mother, who faces a separate trial, for fostering an environment of abuse, and an overburdened bureaucracy — the city Administration for Children's Services — for doing too little to stop it. During jury selection, the lawyer has signaled he also plans to explore the dilemma of how best to discipline children.
Schwartz said outside court Wednesday that his client is guilty only of being "a strict disciplinarian" and reiterated claims that the mother was responsible. Once the jury hears the defense case, he said, "It's going to become very clear who the monster is here."
Opening statements — delayed by a last-minute juror substitution — were scheduled to start Wednesday afternoon.
The case, coupled with a series of high-profile deaths of children known to child welfare workers, sparked a public outcry for reform. City officials and lawmakers responded by bolstering the corps of caseworkers and drafting legislation to give life in prison without parole to parents who cause the death of a child under 14 through abuse.
Nixzmary's torment began making headlines shortly after Jan. 1, 2006, when her mother reported that she found the girl unconscious around 4 a.m. in a home where she was raising five other children, ages 6 months to 9 years. Nixzmary was dead when authorities arrived.
Prosecutors allege that after the mother and Rodriguez were arrested, they found evidence Nixzmary had been confined to a ramshackle back room with the cat box. They also claim the stepfather incriminated himself by seeking to portray the victim as an unruly child who courted punishment by harassing her siblings and "always lying to me."
Rodriguez, 29, admitted on video that he restrained the girl "by putting duct tape on her hand and tying her to a chair."
On Nixzmary's final night, he said, she enraged him by stealing yogurt and trashing computer equipment. The punishment: holding her under cold water, just like his father had punished him. Investigators believe that in the process, he hit her head on a faucet, delivering the death blow.
"She was giving me a hard time, so I pounded her on her back," the stepfather said in his version. Later, he added, "I laid her naked on the bed and told my wife to leave her alone for a while."