Calling Gloria Nelligan’s actions torture and brutal, Schenectady County Court Judge Karen Drago on Friday sentenced Nelligan to the maximum allowed for the killing of her grandson — 25 years to life in prison.
Nelligan was sentenced after the judge heard statements from both the defense and prosecutor, as well as two Nelligan family members and Nelligan herself.
Nelligan, 43, was convicted Oct. 1 of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the beating death of 8-year-old Sha’hiim Nelligan.
Nelligan, who chose a bench trial over a jury trial, was found guilty by Drago. In her sentencing statement, the judge referred to much of the evidence presented in the case and emotional testimony from Nelligan’s daughters, as well as medical testimony that showed the extent of Sha’hiim’s suffering.
“No amount of justice can be dispensed to address the brutality that Sha’hiim suffered at the hands of you, Ms. Nelligan,” Drago told the defendant.
Drago handed down the sentence in a courtroom packed with family, friends and court personnel. Nelligan appeared to give no reaction after Drago imposed sentence. Her daughter — Sha’hiim’s mother, Keila Nelligan — broke into sobs.
Nelligan was found guilty of beating the boy nearly continuously, hitting him at minimum dozens and even hundreds of times, so his bruises ran together. She then failed to get him help until it was too late.
Prosecutor Christina Tremante-Pelham sought the maximum sentence allowed. Nelligan’s attorney, Mark Caruso, asked for the minimum or close to the minimum of 15 years to life.
Nelligan, who had custody of her grandson, gave her own statement through Caruso, who read a lengthy, handwritten letter from his client to the court. In the statement, Nelligan wove in verses from the Bible between her own statements about her case.
“I was there. I know what I saw. I know what I heard,” Nelligan wrote. “I know what I am and am not responsible for.”
She also appeared to criticize the prosecutor and the media. She wrote she constantly thinks about the “ifs,” but she said that won’t change the outcome.
In addition to Sha’hiim, she also cared for her own three youngest children, ages 10, 13 and 16 at the time. All three of those daughters testified at the trial.
Speaking on behalf of Sha’hiim was his uncle and mother — Nelligan’s oldest children. Sha’hiim’s mother was emotional throughout her statement.
“I don’t hate her, even though that’s the reaction people expect from me,” Keila Nelligan told the court. “I want the court to know that I love her, but I love my son more. Forgiveness is going to take some time.”
Sha’hiim’s uncle, DC Dunkel, who took in Nelligan’s three youngest children, said his mother is not the woman portrayed.
Prosecutors argued at trial Gloria Nelligan beat her grandson so badly that swelling caused his heart to stop. Prosecutors also cited testimony from medical professionals that had Nelligan responded to Sha’hiim’s cries for help that morning, he likely would have survived.
Nelligan has contended the boy hit his head on the bathtub on the morning he died, Feb. 23. She said he was acting out and hurting himself in the days leading to his death. But she also admitted to striking Sha’hiim, though only a limited number of times.
The beating, prosecutors alleged, was over a pack of gum Sha’hiim had stolen from a store Feb. 19. Nelligan made Sha’hiim return to the store that day to apologize. She then made him write multiple essays. It wasn’t until Feb. 22 that the beatings began, prosecutors alleged.
Prosecutor Tremante-Pelham recounted evidence and testimony from the trial about the beatings Sha’hiim suffered in front of the other children.
Nelligan’s actions, Tremante-Pelham said, showed she didn’t care about Sha’hiim.
“If she cared about him, she would have stopped beating him,” Tremante-Pelham told Drago. “If she cared about him, she would have given him the help he needed at the time he was still alive.”
Sha’hiim wasn’t so much a grandson to Nelligan as a burden, Tremante-Pelham argued.
“His life was about paying for being that burden,” she said.
“There are no mitigating factors in this case that warrant less than [the maximum sentence],” Tremante-Pelham said.
But defense attorney Caruso argued that there were. He said his client has always conveyed to him regret about the days in question, as well as remorse for what happened to Sha’hiim.
He said Nelligan was trying to be a good parent, taking Sha’hiim back to the store to apologize and pay for the gum he had stolen. Caruso said he doesn’t know how the incident ended up going horribly wrong.
Caruso also cited letters from others attesting to the good Nelligan has done. He read portions of a letter written by one of Nelligan’s daughters, who argued her mother didn’t plan for what happened to happen and that she doesn’t feel her mother deserves life in prison.
Regarding the three daughters who lived with Nelligan, prosecutors Friday consented to lifting an order of protection that barred Nelligan from having contact with them. The only time she’s seen them since Sha’hiim’s death was at the trial, when the girls testified.
Drago, in her comments, said she does not believe for a moment that what happened was because of a stolen pack of gum, but showed “deep seated contempt” for the boy.
She noted Nelligan’s dismissal of Sha’hiim’s cries and her “mocking” the boy not 12 hours after his death as she spoke with investigators.
It also showed in her refusal to take responsibility for her “far more grievous” actions, Drago said.
“I just find it very ironic that you would hold Sha’hiim to such a high standard and that you will not even hold yourself to that same standard,” Drago told Nelligan.