Investigation: Historically, fatal child beatings don’t always lead to murder convictions

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When 10-year-old Ayden Wolfe was buried this week in a blue casket, with his full name etched in white on the side, his brutal death inside a Harlem apartment broke the city’s heart yet again.

His mother’s new boyfriend, Ryan Cato, had been charged with murder after an alleged two-day beating that pushed one neighbor to call 911.

A high-ranking NYPD source told PIX11 detectives are hoping the mother will cooperate in the murder case.

But history shows that women who become star witnesses at the trials of their boyfriends or spouses don’t always help prosecutors attain murder convictions.

If we look back to the 1987 case involving Greenwich Village lawyer Joel Steinberg and his partner, Hedda Nussbaum — a former book editor at Random House — the jury at the 1988 trial did not convict Steinberg of murder in the child abuse death of 6-year-old Lisa, a first grader who was never legally adopted by the couple.

Nussbaum, who was deemed a severely battered woman, testified against Steinberg in eight days of dramatic testimony.  She told jurors that a crack-using Steinberg had thrown Lisa against a bathroom wall before going out to dinner.

Nussbaum remained in the house while Steinberg went out, never calling 911 that night, as the girl’s breathing got more labored. The couple freebased cocaine when Steinberg returned.

Some jury members were upset that Nussbaum was not being held criminally liable for Lisa’s death, so they reached a compromise verdict, convicting Steinberg of Manslaughter in the First Degree.

He spent 17 years in prison.

A similar situation happened in 1997, when Brooklyn police discovered a 7-year-old girl named Justina Morales had vanished from the school system for more than a year, with no one doing any follow-up.

When detectives started investigating, they learned Justina had been smothered by her mother’s boyfriend on New Year’s Eve 1995 and thrown out with the trash. Her body was never recovered.

A Brooklyn jury convicted the boyfriend, Luis Santiago, of manslaughter, after Justina’s mother testified against him.

When the District Attorney at the time, Charles Hynes, was asked about the decision not to prosecute Justina’s mother, he responded, “I couldn’t take the risk that no one would be held responsible for this child’s death.”

The situation was different nearly ten years later, when the child abuse death of Nixmary Brown, 7, horrified the city.

The hungry girl was subjected to a brutal beating after “stealing” a cup of yogurt from the family fridge.

Nixmary’s mother and stepfather were both convicted in the case of manslaughter and received lengthy prison terms.

One piece of evidence shocked New Yorkers: an old school desk found in the family’s home with a cord attached, used to tie Nixmary into place. The child was isolated from her siblings, missed 47 days of school her last year alive, and police said the stepfather sexually assaulted her.

Hundreds turned out for Nixmary’s 2006 funeral, where U.S. Marines served as pallbearers.

The Nixmary Brown case forced a major overhaul in the Administration for Children’s Services.
But the overhaul wasn’t enough to spare all children.

In September 2016, another Harlem boy, Zymere Perkins, was carried lifeless to Harlem Hospital by his mother.

Police later learned he had been subjected to water torture in the shower by the mother’s boyfriend.  On the day Zymere died, he’d endured a final beating until he was hung by his t-shirt on the bathroom door.

In the wake of Zymere’s death, ACS hired 1,100 new child abuse caseworkers.

In the most recent death involving Ayden Wolfe, the Administration for Children’s Services did not have any recent complaint about his family.

But the Medical Examiner determined that Ayden died of Battered Child Syndrome, with evidence of old and new bruises on his body, from head to toe.

Multiple ribs in the boy’s body were fractured; his spleen, liver and kidney were lacerated.
Lisa Saenz, a clinical social worker, is troubled that police responded to a 911 call about possible child abuse the day before Ayden’s death, but didn’t find the family’s 4th floor apartment.

The caller told 911 there’d been 40 minutes of yelling and banging coming from an apartment in St. Nicholas Houses and a child was likely involved.

Police officers from PSA #6 spent about 12 to 14 minutes on the 4th floor, but never isolated one of the eight apartments where the alleged beating had happened.

“I think the serious nature of the call they received did warrant additional push, so to speak,” Saenz said.  “They should change protocol. Knock on every, eight apartment doors.”

Shortly after Ayden’s death, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea released a statement announcing the actions of the housing officers who took the 911 call were under review.

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