CLEVELAND – The niece of a Cleveland man convicted of killing 11 women and stashing their remains in and around his home testified Tuesday that he began sexually assaulting her when she was 10 and he was 11.
The woman, now 50, remained composed as she spoke in a hushed courtroom about what she said was years of almost daily sexual abuse at the hands of Anthony Sowell, 51, in a home in which they lived together as children.
The same jurors who convicted Sowell last month have been hearing testimony that they will weigh when they decide whether Sowell should face the death penalty or a prison term of life without parole.
Sowell mostly sat impassively during the testimony about a troubled, sometimes violent household where the niece and her siblings moved after their mother died. The woman, who was called to the stand by Sowell's attorneys, said that after Sowell began abusing her, an older brother and uncle did likewise.
"You were being sexually abused by Anthony on a daily basis," prompted assistant Prosecutor Pinkey Carr.
"Yes," she responded.
The niece, who has a history of mental health issues, said she never told anyone about the sexual assaults — even when police took her into custody for setting fire to her grandmother's house to escape beatings.
The woman said the sexual assaults began with Sowell ordering her to take off her clothes — a pattern that the prosecution detailed in the sexual assaults of three women who testified against Sowell at his trial. The niece said she resisted Sowell and the two fought. "I got tired of fighting so I went upstairs" to Sowell's room, she testified.
"I knew I wasn't supposed to have sex with no relatives," she said.
The niece said she was abused by three different male relatives in different ways in different parts of the rambling house, but "it was Anthony first."
She testified that Sowell and her abusive brother would watch as her grandmother and great-grandmother would beat her and her sisters, sometimes on a daily basis and sometimes at 3 a.m., for small infractions like leaving a dish unwashed.
The girls were routinely ordered to strip naked, had their hands tied to a railing and were beaten with an extension cord, cane and tree branch, she testified. Sowell received no such treatment, she said.
Sowell's ex-girlfriend, Twyla Austin, also took the stand Tuesday and testified that she began dating him while she was in high school in East Cleveland. Austin said she realized that she had become pregnant with Sowell's child after he had enlisted in the U.S. Marines Corps. The child was born in 1978, Austin said.
Sowell met and married another woman while he was in the Marines, but he used to come back to Ohio and visit his daughter, Austin testified.
"He would come home and visit, pick her up, take her over to his mother's house," she said. "They would send us a support check from the Marine Corps every month."
Sowell was unusually animated during Austin's testimony, often smiling and chuckling as she spoke. He threw his head back and laughed at Austin's response when defense attorney John Parker asked her how her mother felt upon learning she was pregnant.
"She wasn't happy about it," Austin said.
The testimony came in the second day of the sentencing phase of Sowell's trial.
Investigators said Sowell lured victims to his home with the promise of alcohol or drugs. Police discovered the first two bodies and a freshly dug grave in late 2009 after officers went to investigate a woman's report that she had been raped there.
Many of the women found in Sowell's home had been missing for weeks or months, and some had criminal records. They were disposed of in garbage bags and plastic sheets, then dumped in various parts of the house and yard.
Associated Press Writer Meghan Barr contributed to this report.