Posted: 6:26 pm PDT June 7, 2011
MARTINEZ, Calif. -- Shemeeka Davis, an Antioch woman on trial for allegedly torturing and murdering her foster daughter, suffers from severe mental illness and delusions that caused her to believe that the child she killed was the devil, Davis' attorney Betty Barker said during opening statements in Martinez today.
Davis, 40, was charged with murder, torture and child abuse in connection with the Sept. 2, 2008, death of her 15-year-old niece, Jazzmin Davis.
She was also charged with abusing and torturing Jazzmin's twin brother, who is still alive.
Davis has entered a dual plea of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity, which means the trial will be held in two phases, the first to determine whether she was guilty and the second to determine whether she was legally sane at the time.
Prosecutor Satish Jallepalli said during his opening statements that the twins were born in San Francisco to a crack-addicted mother and a father who was in and out of prison.
Davis took them on as foster children as infants and raised them in Antioch with her own children.
"As the children got older it became very clear that there was a difference between them and the defendant's real children," Jallepalli said.
While the twins were still young, Davis began hitting them with spoons. Then she moved onto belts and later to electrical cords, sticks and a hot iron, Jallepalli said.
Jazzmin and her brother were not allowed to eat with Davis' biological children and were not even given the same food, Jallepalli said.
They were locked in their bedroom for long periods of time and forced to urinate and defecate on the floor, Jallepalli said.
"Jazzmin got skinnier and skinnier, and at some point the defendant realized that the children had to be kept out of public view," Jallepalli said.
He said that Jazzmin "was so bruised, so burned, so emaciated" that Davis could not let her go to school anymore without the abuse being discovered.
After her death, officials discovered that Jazzmin had not been to school in more than a year.
"That last year before she died, Jazzmin was a ghost," Jallepalli said.
On the day she died, she was 5 feet seven inches tall and only weighed only 78 pounds, Jallepalli said. The coroner found that she died from a combination of physical abuse and malnutrition.
But the abuse also had a psychological component. Jallepalli said Davis allegedly convinced the children, who knew they were foster children, that nobody else would love them. That belief prevented them from telling anyone about the abuse, Jallepalli said.
When Jazzmin's body was found, it "was literally covered from head to toe with cuts, bruises, scars and burns," Jallepalli said.
Her brother had similar injuries, but even after seeing his sister die, his "first concern was whether his mother -- the only mother he had ever known ... knew that he still loved her," Jallepalli said.
"She didn't deserve that love. She used that love as power," Jallepalli said.
"Ultimately it was Jazzmin's love and (her brother's) love, their love for their mother, that killed Jazzmin," Jallepalli said.
"For that, ladies and gentlemen, she is guilty of murder. She is guilty of torture and she is guilty of child abuse," Jallepalli said.
Barker said nothing would excuse what Davis did to Jazzmin and her brother, but the circumstances that led to Jazzmin's death were a complex web of severe mental illness, dysfunctional family dynamics and failed social services systems.
Davis herself was born to a drug-addicted mother who abused her and her brother -- the twins' father -- deprived them of food and locked them out in the cold while she turned their home into a heroine den, Barker said.
Davis and her brother were taken from their mother and sent to live with their grandmother when Davis was 5 years old, but their grandmother was also abusive, Barker said.
She was 21 and had two children when she took on the care of Jazzmin and her brother, who had numerous health and behavioral problems as a result of being born addicted to crack.
When the twins were 7 years old, Davis gave birth to a daughter with a heart defect and needed surgery.
Around that time, a social worker told Davis that she had to tell the twins that they were foster children.
Jazzmin took the news especially hard, Barker said, and began to act out. She even destroyed the baby's clothes and toys.
When Davis asked for help from social services, she was referred to a clinic, where she was assigned an intern to talk to, Barker said.
Meanwhile, Davis had begun to suffer from delusions.
"Shemeeka, in her delusions, believed that Jazzmin was dangerous and evil," Barker said. "She was wrong, but that was her belief."
She said Davis looked at Jazzmin and saw a danger to herself and her daughter, who was 7 years old when Jazzmin died.
"How does a parent get to the point where she looks at a child and sees the devil?" Barker asked.
Barker argued that Davis' mental illness prevented her from seeing that Jazzmin and her brother were suffering and that Jazzmin was literally starving to death. All she could see were her delusions.
"She honestly saw the devil in Jazzmin," Barker said.
Since her arrest, Davis has been diagnosed with major depressive disorder with psychotic features, delusional disorder, borderline personality disorder with dissociative features and obsessive-compulsive disorder, Barker said.
In jail, Davis is receiving medication for her mental illnesses for the first time in her life and finally realizes what she did, according to Barker, who said Davis, who sobbed throughout Barker's opening statement, feels horribly sad and remorseful about what happened.
However, she argued that in order for Davis to be found guilty of torture and murder, she has to have had the intent to kill and torment Jazzmin and her mental illness prevented her from forming that intent.
She asked the jury to find Davis not guilty of murder and torture.
Since Jazzmin's death, the San Francisco Human Services Agency, which was in charge of overseeing Davis' care of the twins, has agreed to a $4 million settlement with Jazzmin's brother.
The Antioch Unified School District board has also approved a $750,000 settlement with Jazzmin's brother and implemented changes to the district's attendance policy.
The trial was scheduled to resume Wednesday in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez.