Nixzmary Brown’s Mother Sentenced to Longer Term than Girl’s Actual Killer

by Cara on November 21, 2008

in assholes, courts, discrimination, feminism, misogyny, parenthood, patriarchy, sexism, stereotypes, violence against women and girls

I have previously written about the horrific crime that was Nixzmary Brown’s murder.  Her killer and stepfather Cesar Rodriguez got the maximum sentence of 26 1/3 to 29 years in prison for the crime of which he was accused, manslaughter of the seven-year-old girl.

Now Nixzmary’s mother Nixzaliz Santiago has also been sentenced in the crime.  To 40 to 40 1/3 years in prison.  Or at least 14 years longer than her actual killer.

How do we explain this?  Well, the NY TImes actually does a pretty good job:

As the prosecutor asked the judge to impose a long prison sentence, she used the word twice: “Mommy.”

The “mommy” she was referring to was Nixzaliz Santiago, who last week received a sentence of 40 1/3 to 43 years in prison, the maximum term, for her part in the death of her 7-year-old daughter, Nixzmary Brown.

The prosecutor, Ama Dwimoh, said Ms. Santiago was the “one person” who the little girl should have been able to count on. “She called her ‘Mommy,’ ” Ms. Dwimoh told the judge. The word weighed heavily on a trial already filled with horrific details of abuse.

[. . .]

Justice DiMango said that Ms. Santiago, who was convicted of manslaughter and two counts of assault but acquitted of murder, had ignored her lawful obligation as a parent to try to save the dying child. But the wide gap between the sentences raised questions about whether Ms. Santiago shouldered an extra burden as she faced judge and jury: the duty to be a good mother.

[. . .]

One of Ms. Santiago’s lawyers, Kathleen M. Mullin, called the sentence “fundamentally unfair” and said she had expected at most a sentence of 32 years — maximum terms for the manslaughter charge and one of the assault charges, with the sentence for the other assault to run concurrently. (Mr. Rodriguez was not charged with assault.)

That’s right — what it comes down to is that Ms. Santiago “ignored her lawful obligation as a parent,” even though as her stepfather, Mr. Rodriguez was Nixzmary’s parent, too. Oh, and Rodriguez wasn’t charged with assault even though there’s evidence that he assaulted and starved the girl for an extended period. The mother was.

So let’s be a bit more accurate: Ms. Santiago was punished more harshly because she was the girl’s mommy.

The article further examines the bias:

Ms. Mullin said that as the mother of the victim, Ms. Santiago was subjected to added scrutiny. “It’s part of the reason this is so upsetting,” Ms. Mullin said. “We subscribe to these biblical ideas of instinctual mothering.”

B. Keith Crew, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Northern Iowa who has researched gender and racial differences in criminal sentencing, says that women who are not perceived as good mothers often “get the hammer” in sentencing.

“There’s a sacredness about the role of mother,” he said. “When a woman is not fulfilling her role, it shocks the conscience, more than if she commits a crime. If she was prostituting herself or dealing drugs or stealing to feed, clothe and shelter her children, people would be more sympathetic.”

Details of Ms. Santiago’s troubled past — her learning disabilities, her abusive relationships and her miscarriage shortly before Nixzmary died — have caused some who followed the trial to wonder about her capacity to help her daughter.

Awilda Cordero, a victims’ rights advocate, said that Ms. Santiago herself had been abused by Mr. Rodriguez and feared him. “She didn’t know how to protect this child,” she added.

And:

Ms. Abdel-Dayem and an alternate juror, Lenore Habersham, said that a videotaped statement Ms. Santiago gave to the police was the most compelling evidence against her.

“She was so nonchalant about her daughter’s death,” Ms. Abdel-Dayem said. “That really got us, that she seemed so uncaring.”

In other words, Santiago was punished not so much for harming her daughter, and not for causing her death because she’s not the one who actually killed her — Santiago was sentenced to 40 years in prison, much longer than the man who did kill her, because she didn’t live up to our expectations of a mother.

And damn right, that ought to be of concern to us.

Santiago may not be the world’s most sympathetic woman (though I certainly do think that the evidence that she herself was being abused by Rodriguez is compelling).  That doesn’t make the danger of her sentencing to women all over this country any less real.  And it doesn’t make the injustice in her case any less real, either.

If Santiago is guilty of everything that she has been accused of, if she did encourage Rodriguez to beat Nixzmary and even enjoy it or beat the girl herself, those are clearly terrible and perhaps unforgivable crimes.  They deserve punishment, surely.  But they do not deserve punishment more harsh than that for murder.  And encouraging someone to be violent, though inexcusable, should never be considered a more serious crime than actually doing the violence.

So imagine my horror when I read Genia at SistersTalk agreeing with the sentencing:

Should Nixzaliz Santiago be held more responsible than the man who delivered the fatal blow? Yes. I believe mothers should be held to a higher standard, but not because I believe mothers are nurturers by nature. I don’t believe that at all. Andrea Yates, Susan Smith Deanna Laney, and Sivananthi Elango seriously lack the nurturer gene.

With rights come responsibilities. In this country, women have the right to decide if they want to bear a child; therefore, women should be held more accountable for the fate of that child after it’s born. I’m sure lots of my fellow feminists would disagree with that. I don’t understand how any woman who fights for exclusive rights to her own body can then reject the responsibilities that come with those rights.

This pissed me off for quite a few days, so much so that it took me a long time to write about.  It’s just so patently wrong that I don’t know where to begin.

So let us begin here.  It is wrong for a man to beat his wife, for numerous reasons.  It is wrong because it is violence.  It is wrong because it is a betrayal of trust.  It is wrong because it is the abuse of a power imbalance created by our society between men and women and an effort to exercise and expand that power.  And it is wrong, in a large majority of cases, because there is a significant difference in body stature and strength that makes it very difficult for the victim to adequately defend herself.

In other words, it is wrong for all of the same basic reasons that it is wrong to beat your child, or your stepchild.  Violence.  Betrayal.  Power imbalance.  Strength imbalance.

But one of the things that does not make it fundamentally wrong to beat your wife?  One of those things is the fact that you consciously chose to get married.  And it certainly wouldn’t be so in a society where many people didn’t have a choice to not get married, just like many women don’t actually have the access to abortion.

See, I don’t know if Nixzmary was a wanted child.  I have no clue.  Neither do you.  But I do know that we can never use “she made the conscious decision to have a child” without all of the facts in a society where abortion is often inaccessible to those who most need it.

And I do know that even if abortion were readily accessible, it would still be irrelevant.  Because just like beating your wife in an arranged marriage is no more right, choosing to have the child isn’t what makes beating the child wrong.  Nixzmary’s death would be no less wrong if Santiago had wanted an abortion and wasn’t able to obtain one.  It would be no less wrong if Rodriguez had never wanted children and felt trapped with them when he formed a relationship with Santiago.  It just plain wouldn’t.  It would be just as wrong, because a little girl would be just as dead.  And the abuse would be just as wrong for the reasons listed above: violence, betrayal of trust, and abuses of power and strength imbalances.  The reasons, they might make a big difference in terms of preventing such tragedies in the future.  But they don’t make a lick of difference to a dead or abused kid.

Santiago could be guilty of every charge laid against her, and she would still not be more to blame for Nixzmary’s death than Rodriguez.  Because while she may have been able to defend her daughter, and while she may have even encouraged her beatings, she didn’t kill her.  Plain and simple.  She didn’t kill her, and she is therefore not the primary culprit.  She’s certainly not the primary culprit just because she’s Nixzmary’s mother instead of her father.

And to argue otherwise?  That’s fucking sexist.

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{ 11 comments }

1 Paul November 21, 2008 at 2:04 pm

I was shocked at how many on the juries of both trials held the mother more responsible

2 James November 21, 2008 at 2:12 pm

I’m a little confused. How is this woman being punished more because she was a mother?

Both participants, the mother and stepfather, were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to the maximum penalty for that crime.

The only difference is that the mother was also convicted of two additional crimes, both assaults, and was also punished for those offenses.

Now, if you have reason to believe that the stepfather was also guilty of assault, and that prosecutors could have proven this but chose not to, then maybe there was bias against the mother.

However, it is a long-settled principle of law that the mastermind of a crime is at least as guilty, and often more so, than the henchman who carries out the act. You may disagree with this principle, but it’s hardly proof of bias against mothers; it’s simply a standard set of priorities in prosecuting crimes.

3 Cara November 21, 2008 at 2:18 pm

Now, if you have reason to believe that the stepfather was also guilty of assault, and that prosecutors could have proven this but chose not to, then maybe there was bias against the mother.

Um yeah, seeing as how he was accused in court of beating her for years, tying her to chairs, forcing her to use a litter box as her rest room, holding her head under water, leaving her naked in a cold room, and starving her, I’d say that he should have been charged with assault. Please read up on the case, as I did, before commenting on it and telling me I’m wrong.

Also, no one has accused her of being a “mastermind” until just now. They accused her of egging the abuser on. Hugely different things.

4 Lemur November 21, 2008 at 5:43 pm

Mastermind? uh really, dude?
sheesh.
and yes, that’s totally unfair.

5 SunlessNick November 22, 2008 at 3:48 am

Mastermind? As in, he wouldn’t have done it without her sinister influence? Yeah, that rings totally true.

As as for he stepfather was also guilty of assault – notwithstanding what he was accused of doing to Ms Santiago, the murder is hardly the first time he assaulted Nixzmary.

Ms. Santiago was the “one person” who the little girl should have been able to count on.

Shouldn’t she have been able to count on her stepfather to not beat and kill her?

In this country, women have the right to decide if they want to bear a child

Even by Genia’s own logic, this fails. Santiago chose to become a stepfather – it’s hardly as if he didn’t know about Nixzmary when he married her mother – he had that right, and he had the right to choose otherwise, so doesn’t responsibility come with it?

Of course killing his stepdaughter probably rates in some minds as him exercising his right to choose otherwise.

Because while she may have been able to defend her daughter, and while she may have even encouraged her beatings, she didn’t kill her.

Neither did she die in her defence, and that I suspect is a big part of why she’s being punished. Because she failed to die first.

6 Thealogian November 22, 2008 at 8:04 am

I’ve commented on this site before about this case–in reference to the defense lawyer’s attempt to smear the little girl as unruly and the step-father as exercising his rights as father/owner to “punish” her. I believe we also talked (on the thread) about the abuse Mrs. Santiago experienced at the hand of her husband.

Anyway, I want to address this quote:

Ms. Mullin said. “We subscribe to these biblical ideas of instinctual mothering.”

First of all, WAY to combine two highly manipulated “sources” of popular “knowledge”–we have the “biblical” (the whole Judeo-Christian, handed down from God argument) meeting “instinctual mothering” (the whole evo-psych, pop-science argument). Genius! I mean, seriously. You’ve got your Fundies and your Libertarian/faux science nerds on board, and of course everyone who thinks very little about science or the complex history/context of the Hebrew and Christian bibles.

Its quotes like that that remind me daily to thank the Goddess for the gender challenges the idea of same sex marriage poses. Particularly when same sex marriage isn’t framed in a “top/bottom” or “butch/femme” construct.

The fundamental argument for this woman’s disproportional punishment is that she didn’t act naturally. It is natural to be a good mother and unnatural to be a bad mother. The whole “natural” argument, whether it is grounded in biblical interpretations (probably of Genesis–boy do they get a hell of a lot of traction out of Genesis for all kinds of wack job ideas) or evo-pscyhe (pseudo science that tries to justify how we live today and inequality as “natural”–its pseudo science because it precisely looks for ways to confirm existing biases and maladaptive social traditions to fit in with the Patriarchy). Back to the original clause (I lost the stream for a minute) ….the “natural argument” is both the easy route to indict women for every crime or social ill they might commit (like, abusing drugs during pregnancy, for example)…gee, every woman wants a baby and if she is a drug addict and homeless while pregnant, she’s choosing to hurt that innocent, wanted child…blah blah blah. Or, how about simply giving custody of your children to your spouse? You get a divorce and the mother says, you take the kids, I’ll pay you child support, and I’ll see them every other weekend. How many hawls from the peanut gallery would that particular woman get? Yet, fathers do that ALL THE TIME. Gee, but its natural for her to nurture and for him to sew is wild oats, I guess.

Obviously, the torture and death of a child do not make for sympathetic fodder. But, it is precisely because of these objectionable arguments for “naturalness” that allowed for this situation to arise. The father/owner paradigm as natural, the mother nurturer/submissive paradigm, and the child as property have all been argued as “natural” by the forces of gender-conformity and oppression.

Same sex couples offer us a reminder that biology is not destiny–one does not simply become the primary care giver/maid/cook out of genital imperative. Same sex couples negotiate these chores (not roles, chores–they are fucking chores people).

If something like this case happened in a same sex couple, the nature argument would probably still be invoked–though in order to condemn their “lifestyle” and the unfitness of all same sex couples to raise children. So, lets hope that such a case doesn’t arise in the near future. But, my thankfulness for same sex couples isn’t to grant an exact case by case analysis, but rather thankfulness because the more same sex couples come into the consciousness and the popular culture, the more the gender divide of things such as household chores and child care, will be in flux. Same sex couples are exactly what the feminist movement needs as allies to demonstrate that the “naturalness” of our oppression and the unfair burden of labor and social responsibility foisted upon women for all things family is bullshit and culturally constructed to serve the Patriarchy. So, thank you same sex couples–keep on showing up to those company picnics in matching sweater sets and challenging the ideas of the heteronormative veneer of “naturalness”–and please, when some idiot asks, “whose the boy and whose the girl” say “neither” or “we both are” or “we’re partners” or something way more clever but to the point. You do this, and I’ll be your ally.

Peace

7 Renee November 22, 2008 at 10:53 am

Who says that motherhood is not an insitutionalized position. No matter what the circumstances are unless you are the perfect Harriet to someone else’s Ozzie you are doing it wrong. I am not saying that this woman was right, or giving her an excuse, I just feel the need to point out how highly disciplined the roll of motherhood is.

Right after you give birth the hospital hands you parenting magazines and how to guides as though you can raise a child by a book. There is instant discipline on your decisions…and this never ends from the moment you become a mother.

It is quite easy to see how this came to bear on this womans sentencing. We claim that we put motherhood up on a pedestal, but actually we spend more time controlling it and letting women know when they mess up our idealized version of what the long suffering, ever nurturing, perfect cook and cleaner should be.

8 SunlessNick November 25, 2008 at 9:13 am

We claim that we put motherhood up on a pedestal

We do put motherhood on a pedestal. Mothers on the other hand – as you say – despite (or more probably because of) that, are slammed as unworthy because of every real human quality they have.

9 Xerophyte November 27, 2008 at 10:17 pm

Is Genia aware that it takes two people to make a child? As one of my good friends is fond of saying, “She didn’t climb on top of herself and get herself pregnant.” By Genia’s logic, no guy should ever have sex unless he’s willing to take on the responsibility of having a child. And also by her logic, every father who leaves the mother of his child without taking the child should be charged with some type of child abandonment/endangerment.

10 MsFeasance November 27, 2008 at 11:01 pm

This is also not to mention that the women that she listed as lacking the “nurturer gene” were mentally ill. Ugh.

11 sonia December 14, 2008 at 10:14 pm

well.

“Should Nixzaliz Santiago be held more responsible than the man who delivered the fatal blow? Yes. I believe mothers should be held to a higher standard”

being held to a higher standard than murdering a child? that’s precisely the point. she did less than that, right? complicity is not committing the actual crime. while she sounds like she’s pretty messed up, too, the irony of this statement is compelling. duh.

this verdict drips with biological determinism and woman hate.

and btw, being held to a higher standard than men? that’s pretty much anything, right?

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