HONOLULU (AP) — A death penalty trial started Tuesday with a prosecutor telling jurors that the fatal blow a former Hawaii-based soldier dealt his 5-year-old daughter was so hard it left knuckle imprints on the child's chest.
Naeem Williams faces the death penalty even though Hawaii abolished capital punishment in the 1950s. That's because he's being tried in the federal justice system, where executions are allowed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren Ching told jurors in his opening statement that the blow that killed Talia Williams on July 16, 2005, came after months of neglect, assault and torture by Williams — "her flesh and blood, her father" — and a "wicked stepmother."
Defense attorney John Philipsborn told jurors in his opening statement that Williams was ill-equipped to care for a child, let alone a child with special needs who had bowel- and bladder-control problems. Philipsborn said that when Talia went to live with him in Hawaii, about seven months before her death, he had never cared for a child.
He said the defense's case will focus on what the Williamses were thinking and "what they were intending to do."
Meanwhile, Ching spent about an hour telling jurors disturbing details of the alleged abuse, including a neighbor overhearing Williams commanding his daughter to eat her feces; Williams whipping Talia with a belt while she was duct-taped to a bedpost; and the father hitting the girl so hard with a plastic ruler he nicknamed "Mr. Paddle" that it broke.
Stepmother Delilah Williams pleaded guilty in a deal with prosecutors to testify against the former soldier in exchange for a 20-year sentence. Ching said Delilah Williams will provide a "firsthand account of abuse."
Talia's biological mother, Tarshia Williams, also was expected to testify. Ching said Tarshia Williams and Talia's father weren't married but share the same last name because they are distant relatives.
Other expected witnesses include Talia's former teacher at Wheeler Elementary School, the family's former neighbors and the medical examiner who concluded that the death of Talia, who was born in South Carolina, was the result of battered child syndrome.
Naeem Williams also will take the stand, Philipsborn, the defense attorney, told the jury.
Philipsborn showed jurors a grainy, black-and-white photograph taken several months before Talia's death and soon after the birth of her half-sister.
"This photograph is a photograph of a tragedy in progress," he said.
When South Carolina Family Court granted custody of Talia to her father, Williams had never cared for a child before, Philipsborn told jurors. When Talia went to live with him in Hawaii, about seven months before her death, he had never spent an entire day with a child, Philipsborn said.
Philipsborn said Naeem Williams was married to a controlling, angry and volatile woman. Alexander Silvert, Delilah Williams' federal public defender, declined to comment on characterizations made about her during opening statements because she'll be able to speak for herself when she testifies.
Williams grew up with a mother who "took care of his every need," and then married a woman who controlled his finances and other daily tasks, Philipsborn said.
The couple's relationship was dysfunctional, including infidelity and domestic disturbances requiring the involvement of military police, the defense attorney said, and "here in the midst of it was Talia Williams."
He warned jurors that the trial would involve graphic testimony and photographs.
"You will understand from Naeem Williams he had both strengths and limitations," Philipsborn said.
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