The mother of 7-year-old Nixzmary Brown was convicted of manslaughter Friday in a case that hastened reforms in New York's child welfare agency and made the little girl's name synonymous with child abuse.
Brooklyn jurors deliberated three days before convicting Nixzaliz Santiago in the January 2006 death of the tiny, malnourished girl, who was severely punished after she was caught stealing yogurt.
"The journey for justice for Nixzmary Brown is almost over," said Assistant District Attorney Ama Dwimoh, who prosecuted both of Nixzmary's parents. "Today is a good day for the children because this jury said loud and clearly that parents have a duty. ... It's not just what you do -- it's what you don't do."
Santiago, like her husband, was acquitted of murder and convicted of manslaughter. Cesar Rodriguez, who delivered the fatal blow, was convicted in March and is serving 29 years in prison.
The trial had raised questions of whether mothers should be held to a higher standard than fathers. Prosecutors argued that the mother had shockingly failed to protect her child, and should be thoroughly punished.
Santiago could face up to 33 years in prison -- more than her husband -- when she is sentenced on Nov. 5. An appeal is planned.
"She did not do the same as Cesar," said defense attorney Sammy Sanchez. "An angel, Nixzmary Brown, died and that was a tragedy and we feel terrible for all of the family. But Cesar was the true criminal."
Evidence included grim crime-scene photos from the room where Nixzmary was bound to a chair, starved and forced to urinate in a litter box. Nixzmary was so malnourished when she died that she weighed only 36 pounds -- about half the weight of an average girl that age.
Another defense attorney, Kathleen Mullin, said Santiago tried twice to stop her husband from hitting the girl, and didn't know he continued beating her until she died. She said Santiago was a loving but overworked mother caring for five other children, and was afraid of her husband.
"If the mother doesn't protect their child, who does?" countered Dwimoh. "This is a woman who is obsessed with her man, who chooses her man over her daughter."
Dwimoh said Santiago had an obligation to call for help after she saw the battered girl, but simply didn't care.
"She had every reason to believe she was going to lose this little girl, and she doesn't call for an ambulance," said the prosecutor. "She doesn't do anything until it's too late."
There had long been warning signs. School employees had reported that Nixzmary had been absent for weeks during the previous year. Neighbors noticed unexplained injuries and noted the child appeared underfed, though Sanchez has said she was just small for her age. Child welfare workers had been alerted twice but said they found no conclusive evidence of abuse.
The case, coupled with a series of other high-profile deaths of children known to the agency, sparked public demands for reform. City officials responded by bolstering the corps of caseworkers.
Four of Santiago's other children are in foster care with the same family, and her remaining son is living with his father. Santiago's mother, Maria Gonzalez, is seeking custody of the children and has sued the city over Nixzmary's death.