Marchella Brett-Pierce "starved to death" due to her mother's "utter disregard" for her life, prosecutors said in their opening statements in Brooklyn Supreme Court on Monday.
Carlotta Brett-Pierce is charged with murder and other offenses related to the September 2010 death of 4-year-old Marchella Brett Pierce. Loretta Brett, the child's maternal grandmother, is charged with manslaughter. Both have pleaded not guilty. The two trials are being conducted simultaneously, but with two separate juries.
Prosecutors allege that Marchella, who weighed only 18 pounds at the time of her death, was bound to her grandmother’s bed from April or May 2010 until she died. The medical examiner determined that the cause of death was child abuse syndrome, with acute drug poisoning, blunt impact injuries, malnutrition and dehydration.
"Beaten, bound, drugged, dehydrated and starved," said Assistant District Attorney Perry Cerrato. "That's how Marchella Brett-Pierce died."
Prosecutors said the autopsy showed Marchella had over 70 blunt impact injuries, ligature marks on her ankles, nearly zero fat in her body and one kernel of corn in her stomach.
Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Kagan described the grandmother and the mother as "teammates" working together on raising the three children. Marchella died "inches" from her grandmother's bed, and Brett failed to help her, Kagan said.
"There's two sides to every story," Alan Stutman, Brett-Pierce's lawyer said outside the courtroom, adding he thinks the charges are "over-elevated."
In his opening statement, Stutman tried to portray Brett-Pierce as a woman who was not skilled or knowledgeable enough to care for a child with special needs. He said she simply tried to raise Marchella the way she did her other two healthy boys.
While that might have been "ignorant, stupid and neglectful" it was not murder, he said.
Julie Clark, Loretta Brett's lawyer, said the parents were responsible for Marchella and that her client only tried to help her daughter out.
Marchella was born prematurely, at 24 weeks, and weighed just over a pound. She suffered from a variety of ailments and spent most of the first 3-and-a-half years of her life in various hospitals.
When she was released from Northwoods in Niskayuna in February 2010, she weighed 26.8 pounds, and the staff deemed her ready to be cared for by her mother, who received training, the prosecutors said.
Marchella was released with a tracheal and feeding tube.
Prosecutors allege that Brett-Pierce failed to take care of her daughter's special needs after her release from Northwoods: that she did not replace the feeding tube after it came off, refused to learn how to replace a tracheal tube, and fed Marchella chicken and hot dogs, the kind of food she could not digest.
Ultimately, Marchella started getting up during the night and looking for food she could eat, such as icies and sweets. That’s when her mother started bounding her to a bed in Loretta Brett's room. She also fed Marchella Benadryl and Claritin to keep her calm. All this led to Marchella’s death, prosecutors said.
Stutman repeatedly pointed out that the Brett-Pierce family was under the Administration for Children’s Services’ watch, and that the agency could have stepped in.
“They came, and they looked, and they found nothing wrong,” said Stutman, referring to ACS. “There was no intervention.”
ACS became involved with the family after Brett-Pierce tested positive for drugs at the birth of her third child, a son, in November 2009.
Two former ACS employees, Damon Adams and his supervisor, Chereece Bell, who were assigned to Marchella's case, are also awaiting trial on the top charge of criminally negligent homicide. This is the first time in the city’s history that prosecutors charged child welfare workers.