Benton jury convicts Nicolas' grandma

Relates to:
Date: 2004-02-21

Journal and Courier (Lafayette, IN)
Dateline: Benton County, Indiana
By Marc B. Geller
mgeller@journalandcourier.com

FOWLER - Margaret E. Williams sat stone-faced Friday as a Benton County jury of three men and three women found her guilty on all five felony counts of neglect of a dependent, in connection with harsh punishments she meted out to her late grandson, Nicolas Zavala, 11.

The charges allege that between May and August 2002, Nicolas was subjected to painful forms of punishment by Williams, 59, formerly of Oxford, who allegedly was assisted by Nicolas' uncle Miguel Campos.

Campos, 19, is scheduled to stand trial on his own neglect charge April 26.

Nicolas went missing on Aug. 13, 2002. His skeletal remains were discovered April 18 in Iroquois County, Ill. Police have not released Nicolas' cause of death. Williams and Campos have not been implicated in Nicolas' death.

Williams' alleged orders included requiring Nicolas to:

· Kneel on a broomstick for extended periods while holding heavy vegetable cans or jars in his hands.

· Kneel on a broomstick for extended periods while holding jugs of water with his hands extended from his body.

· Kneel on a broomstick for extended periods while holding jugs of sand with his hands extended from his body.

· Lean his forehead against a wall for several hours with his body at an incline and his feet 2 to 3 feet from the wall. A rag or towel would be used to cushion Nicolas' forehead, according to court documents. The discipline was referred to by Williams as "Muncie exercises," a form of punishment reportedly administered at the Muncie Reception and Diagnostic Center, a juvenile detention facility.

It took the six-person jury about 40 minutes to return with the guilty verdicts. Williams is scheduled to be sentenced at 3 p.m. March 15 in Benton Circuit Court. She faces six months to three years in prison on each count.

After the verdict, she was remanded into the custody of the sheriff. Judge Rex Kepner set bond at $1,100 cash or $10,000 surety.

During the trial, prosecutor Jud Barce called as witnesses five former friends of Campos who regularly visited Williams' home and observed the punishments administered to Nicolas.

The witnesses testified that Williams told them the punishments were in response to Nicolas taking a box of matches, or for lighting a match on one occasion, and an incident in which he removed some prescription medication.

They also testified that during the kneeling punishment, Williams required Nicolas to start over if he relaxed his arms, and that during the leaning punishment Williams required Nicolas to start over if the rag or washcloth, placed between his forehead and the wall, fell.

One of the witnesses, Clay Hipps, 19, performed a demonstration at defense attorney Brian Dekker's request in which he stood and held a 10-ounce can of Campbell's Chicken Noodle Soup in each hand with his arms extended to each side of his body. Hipps, who said he weighs 160 pounds and is about 5 feet 11 inches tall, was able to maintain the position for five minutes, 14 seconds.

Another witness, Tyson Villinski, 20, testified than when he was an inmate at Muncie Reception and Diagnostic Center, he was required to endure the leaning punishment, but only for 20 to 30 minutes.

Villinski, who acknowledged that he did drugs at Williams' house, testified Nicolas was required to endure the leaning punishment for "a lot longer than that," estimating the duration at 90 minutes to two hours.

Villinski, who also acknowledged that he has a criminal record that includes burglary, further testified that Nicolas appeared to be "in complete agony" while enduring the kneeling punishment for as long as two hours.

Williams did not testify, and Dekker rested without introducing any evidence or calling any witnesses.

`Absolutely no possibility'

During his cross-examination of Campos' former friends, Dekker's questions seemed intended to raise questions about the prosecution witnesses' credibility in the minds of the jury.

In closing statements, he told the jury there was "absolutely no possibility" Nicolas could have held out two 10-ounce cans for hours at a time.

"There is absolutely no medical, physical way he could do it," he said. "It's an exaggeration."

In his own closing statements, Barce told the jury that the pain Nicolas experienced, as attested by the witnesses who observed the punishments, amounted to injury.

"In this case, the alleged discipline went so far it was nothing more than torture over a box of matches," he said.

The jury found that for each of the five counts, Williams, who was responsible for Nicolas' care as a dependent, knowingly or intentionally placed him in a situation that endangered his life or health, whether emotional, mental or physical.

Before the court can sentence Williams on each of the five counts, it must be convinced that there is separate evidence to support each count. Barce plans to present that evidence at the sentencing hearing.

"Counts 1 and 2 use identical language, and counts 4 and 5 use identical language," he said. If he's unsuccessful at convincing the court there is separate evidence to support each count, there likely will be three convictions: one for counts 1 or 2, one for count 3 and one for counts 4 or 5.

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