DALLAS – The defense for the mother of three children found starving in a hotel bathroom portrayed her Wednesday as another victim of her abusive boyfriend, but prosecutors said while she gave birth, "she's no mom."
Abneris Santiago, 31, was charge with injury to a child after police discovered the children starved and shut in a Dallas extended-stay hotel room's bathroom last summer. The children's skeletons were visible beneath their stretched and flaky skin, and authorities said they could have been confined for as long as nine months.
"She may be a mother, but she's no mom," prosecutor Eren Price said of Santiago during opening statements.
The trial began in the same courtroom where Santiago's boyfriend, Alfred Santiago, was convicted Tuesday and sentenced to 99 years in prison. A different jury found him guilty of injury to a child and continuous sexual abuse.
The couple have the same surname but never married. They have a daughter who was 1 when the arrests happened. She was found healthy and unharmed.
With the same prosecutors and judge, Abneris Santiago's trial included much of the same testimony as her boyfriend's. Her brother testified he drove more than 1,200 miles from Ohio to Texas because he was concerned she was in an abusive relationship.
Abner Santiago said his sister always told him her children were doing well in school, and he did not suspect they were in danger. In fact, they were near death.
When he arrived at her hotel room with police officers as backup, Abner Santiago said he was stunned by his niece and nephews' condition.
"They were skin and bones," he said. "Their eye sockets were sunk in. You could make out the bone outlines in their faces. (The 11-year-old girl) had to hold up her pants."
Abner Santiago, his voice quavering, said the girl emerged from the hotel and told him: "It's OK now. We're safe."
He was unable to reply.
"I couldn't say anything to her," he said. "I was at a loss for words."
Later, he bought fast food for the three children — who were then 5, 10 and 11. The youngest boy, who weighed less than 30 pounds, couldn't hold down the food and vomited.
As prosecutor Carmen White pinned photos of the children to a courtroom wall, Abneris Santiago sat next to her defense attorney, rocking and shaking. Her waist-length black hair was streaked with gray and her neck had a tattoo of her ex-boyfriend's name.
Later in the day, Santiago asked the judge to excuse her from the courtroom. She had started crying during a two-hour video prosecutors played of her daughter being interviewed by authorities on the day she was rescued, The Dallas Morning News reported on its website. In the video, the girl described being sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend.
The judge refused, even after Santiago said she might vomit. The judge said she could have a trash can placed next to her chair.
Her lawyer, James Jamison, said in his opening remarks that Alfred Santiago was to blame for the children's condition. While Abneris Santiago worked up to 50 hours a week at a barbecue restaurant, Alfred Santiago stayed home with the children, who were not enrolled in school.
"She was not the primary caretaker," Jamison said. "You're going to hear about a very abusive relationship."
In the trial that ended Tuesday, jurors heard from the children's therapist, who said since being rescued the oldest boy has been hospitalized three times for being suicidal.
Another doctor said two of the children were afraid to use the bathroom at the hospital where they were taken. One of the boys, who suffered brain atrophy related to chronic starvation, preferred urinating in his hospital bed. The same child gained 22 pounds in less than two months in the hospital thanks to a healthy diet.