Relatives, friends and complete strangers gathered today for the funeral of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown as the girl's parents faced murder charges and new details on her death emerged.
Mourners wept at St. Mary Church on Manhattan's Lower East Side today as Nixzmary's body lay inside a small coffin draped with a white and red cloth before an altar still decorated with Christmas poinsettias.
"We have a reminder by the death of this child that the violence continues," said the Rev. Robert O'Neil, the pastor of St. Mary Church. "She is a witness for us."
On Tuesday, a Brooklyn grand jury indicted Cesar Rodriguez and Nixzaliz Santiago, Nixzmary's stepfather and mother, on second-degree murder charges. Prosecutors said she was beaten, starved, tied to a chair, and tortured before she died in her Brooklyn apartment on Jan. 11. Her death has renewed concerns about the Administration for Children's Services' ability to protect abused children.
Rodriguez and Santiago also face charges of manslaughter, unlawful imprisonment, and endangering the welfare of a child. Rodriguez has also been charged with first-degree sexual assault against Nixzmary. If convicted, they could face 25 years to life in prison.
In their indictment, prosecutors said Rodriguez abused the girl for months as her mother did nothing. The alleged abuse culminated, prosecutors said, when Rodriguez smashed Nixzmary's head against a bathtub.
Slaying Allegedly Over Cup of Yogurt and Malfunctioning Printer
A missing cup of yogurt -- and a malfunctioning computer printer -- may have led to Nixzmary's death. Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes told reporters Tuesday that Rodriguez flew into a rage when he learned that his computer printer wasn't working. One of Nixzmary's siblings blamed her.
"One of the kids said it must have been Nixzmary," Hynes said. "Rodriguez went into a tirade. And while Santiago looked on, he systematically beat Nixzmary about her body. He then stripped the little girl naked and dragged her into the bathroom and turned on the cold water from the bathtub faucet and thrust her head underneath the freezing water. … When Rodriguez had Nixzmary in the bathroom, loud banging noises and her screams, 'Mommy,' could be heard throughout the apartment."
Sources told ABC News affiliate WABC-TV in New York that Rodriguez had also asked his wife who was responsible for the missing yogurt and his problematic computer printer. Santiago, sources said, blamed Nixzmary.
Why Not First-Degree Murder?
Sources close to the prosecution told WABC that both Rodriguez and Santiago had made detailed confessions. However, Santiago's attorney has insisted that the allegations against her are false.
"She did not abuse Nixzmary in any way," Robert Abrams said. "She is not an abuser. She is very unhappy with the abuse that did occur, but she is completely innocent of these charges."
Nixzmary's death has prompted the ACS commissioner to promise a shake-up.
"I'm not going to, however, just simply in a shotgun fashion take out staff or suspend or discipline staff simply because they had anything to do with this terrible tragedy," said Commissioner John Mattingly. "On the other hand, when people don't follow the basic practices of the organization, they will be held accountable."
Some critics have wondered why Rodriguez and Santiago are not facing first-degree murder charges. Hynes said to win a first-degree murder conviction, the prosecution would have to prove both torture and that the defendants were enjoying the torture -- a nearly impossible legal standard that he believes should be changed.
Reported by ABC affiliate WABC in New York.