A death penalty trial is underway against a former Hawaii-based soldier accused of inflicting a fatal blow to his 5-year-old daughter that left knuckle imprints on her chest.
Naeem Williams, 34, faces the death penalty even though Hawaii abolished capital punishment in the 1950s. That's because he's being tried in the federal justice system, where there is a death penalty.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Darren Ching told jurors in his opening statement Tuesday that the blow that killed Talia Williams on July 16, 2005 came after months of neglect, assault and torture at the hands of her father and stepmother at their townhome at Wheeler Army Airfield. He said the couple was upset that the child would repeatedly soil herself. Ching said in the final days of her life, Talia's bedroom had been stripped of all toys and furniture because of her problems potty training.
Ching described grotesque punishment and beatings that are almost difficult to comprehend. He said Talia was beaten almost daily by Naeem Williams, first with a plastic ruler that the child knew as "Mr. Paddle," then with a belt. The prosecution also alleges Talia was forced to eat her own feces, and was tied to her bed post where she would be whipped with the belt.
"On July 16, 2005 Talia's months of suffering came to an end," Ching told jurors.
In his 50 minute opening statement, Ching described Delilah Williams as a "wicked stepmother." Under a deal with the government, she pleaded guilty in exchange for testimony against the former soldier, and will be sentenced to 20 years in prison.
However, defense attorney John Phillipsborn told jurors Naeem Williams also plans to testify. In an opening statement that lasted more than an hour, he said his client was ill-equipped to care for a child, and called the situation a tragedy.
"She's placed with a father who barely knows her and is completely unequipped to deal with her," said Phillipsborn.
Talia Williams' father was awarded custody of his daughter in January, 2005 after the Department of Social Services in South Carolina determined Talia's biological mother, Tarshia Williams, contributed to the child's malnourishment and stunted development.
Phillipsborn said his client doesn't dispute the abuse his daughter suffered, but claims it was his wife who caused Talia's death from prior beatings that included stomping on the girl's stomach.
Phillipsborn said Delilah Williams was more violent and hostile than Naeem, and suspected her husband of cheating on her. He claims Delilah projected her rage onto Talia once the child arrived in Hawaii on Dec. 13, 2004. Phillipsborn stated that because of Delilah's controlling and angry nature, Naeem "... made a choice to ally himself with his wife, when he should have allied himself with his daughter."
However, Phillipsborn said that changed after an incident on Jan. 11, 2005 when Delilah Williams stormed into a barracks her husband was confined to after military police were called to the couple's home. After the incident in which his wife allegedly attacked Williams, he told a fellow soldier he wanted a divorce.
The ex-soldier's defense team said he will take the witness stand in his own defense, and evidence will show the plea deal his wife struck with prosecutors was built on lies. Delilah Williams has told investigators she stopped beating Talia in March, about four months before the child's death.
Phillipsborn contradicted that, saying the stepmother's abuse of the child continued will after March. He said the only way Delilah Williams could get around a possible life sentence was to cooperate with the government.
"It was not a head injury or a fresh head injury that caused (Talia's) death, but prior injuries," he said.
The prosecution's list of possible witnesses includes 45 people. Evidence presented during the trial will include photos of Talia Williams' body and the townhouse where the couple lived.
The jury that will decide Naeem Williams' fate consists of seven men and five women. If Williams is found guilty, the jury must be unanimous in recommending a sentence of death. If not, Williams will receive a life sentence.
The ex-soldier faces five counts, including child abuse felony murder, a pattern and practice of assault and torture, conspiracy to commit a pattern and practice of assault and torture, obstruction of justice and making a materially false statement.
The trial is being conducted by federal Judge J. Michael Seabright, who chastised a male juror for nodding off during Ching's opening statement. Seabright denied a request by Williams' defense team to discharge the juror, saying if he dismissed every juror who became drowsy there would be no one left.
The trial is scheduled to resume tomorrow.