Gloria Nelligan was convicted Tuesday morning of second-degree murder for beating her grandson to death.
Schenectady County Court Judge Karen Drago also found Nelligan guilty of first-degree manslaughter in the beating death of 8-year-old Sha’hiim Nelligan.
Nelligan, 43, now faces up to 25 years to life in state prison. Sentencing is set for Nov. 8.
Drago read the verdict in the bench trial just after 11 a.m. to a courtroom packed with family, court officials and onlookers. Nelligan, who has walked with a cane throughout the trial, heard the verdict as she sat at the defense table.
There was no audible reaction in the courtroom as Drago read her decision.
Outside the courtroom, prosecutors reiterated that they believe the murder count, which takes into account the age difference between the two and Nelligan’s mind-set at the time, best fit the facts of the case.
Among those facts was testimony from medical professionals estimating Sha’hiim was struck a minimum of dozens of times and possibly hundreds, and that he would have shown signs of being injured seriously.
They also included testimony that had Nelligan responded to Sha’hiim’s cries for help the morning he died, he likely would have survived.
“He wasn’t just killed,” prosecutor Christina Tremante-Pelham told reporters. “He was made to suffer. He endured tremendous pain and that, coupled with some of her actions — being tied up, a sock in his mouth — all of that, I think, does amount to exactly what torture would be for a child.”
Nelligan’s defense attorney, Mark Caruso, left without commenting to media.
Outside the courthouse, Nelligan’s oldest son D.C. Dunkel, the man now caring for her three youngest daughters, talked about the impact of everything on the family.
“The problem here is people fail to realize that grief is easier to get over than knowing that your mom is sitting in a cage for the rest of her life,” Dunkel said. “There’s three young girls affected by this, too, who want to see their mom.”
Nelligan, who had custody of her grandson, has been barred from contact with her daughters since the boy’s death on Feb. 23. Her daughters were 10, 13 and 16 at the time.
The trial included emotional testimony from the three daughters, who were witnesses to parts of the events that led up to Sha’hiim’s death in their Mynderse Street home.
Prosecutors argued Nelligan beat her grandson so severely that swelling caused his heart to stop because of a lack of blood. The beating, prosecutors alleged, was over a pack of gum Sha’hiim had stolen from a store days earlier.
Nelligan has contended the boy hit his head on the bathtub on the morning he died. She said he was acting out and hurting himself in the days leading to his death. She also admitted to striking Sha’hiim, though only a limited number of times.
Expected to be central to Drago’s considerations was Nelligan’s state of mind at the time. To prove the murder count, prosecutors didn’t have to show she intended death, but acted in a depraved indifference to human life that resulted in death. For that, they had to show that Nelligan’s behavior was particularly cold, callous and wanton.
For the manslaughter count, prosecutors needed to prove that Nelligan intended to cause physical injury, resulting in death. The manslaughter conviction would essentially serve as a backup charge should the murder conviction be overturned on appeal, prosecutors said.
Caruso argued that Nelligan could not have foreseen that a back scratcher, allegedly used as a weapon, could cause death. Reasonable people discipline their children and sometimes use hands or other items to do that, Caruso said.
At best, Caruso argued, the case was that of criminally negligent homicide, a lower level felony.
Prosecutor Tremante-Pelham argued that the beatings took place over at least 12 hours and the impact of them elevated the crime to murder.
Dunkel was originally on the witness list, having briefly visited the Nelligan home the evening before Sha’hiim died. But he was never called to testify. Dunkel suggested that was to keep him out of the courtroom for the girls’ testimony. Those on the witness list are generally barred from court prior to their testimony, for fear of contaminating it.
Tremante-Pelham said they did intend to call him, but other pieces came out and they didn’t need him. Dunkel was then taken off the witness list and allowed to attend court sessions.
Dunkel said he doesn’t believe his mother committed murder, but that the death was an accident. He said he and his fiancee visited his mother in jail every weekend.
Also speaking outside the courthouse was Sha’hiim’s mother, Keila Nelligan. Keila Nelligan, who was a teenage mother, gave up Sha’hiim to her mother early in his life.
She said only her mother knows what happened. What happened, she said, didn’t need to happen.
But Keila Nelligan was also forgiving.
“Despite what she did to my son, I don’t hate her,” Keila Nelligan said. “She’s my mom, regardless. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be here.”
She added later, “you can forgive, never forget.”