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Defense claims Garner toddler fell into coffee table, died

Sherita Nicole McNeil faces charges of first-degree murder and concealing the death of a person – her son, DeVarion Gross.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A public defender representing a Garner mother who is accused of killing her young son said the toddler fell into a coffee table and died.

Sherita Nicole McNeil, of 1852 Spring Drive, faces charges of first-degree murder and concealing the death of a person – her son, DeVarion Gross.

How DeVarion died has remained a mystery. His autopsy showed the child, about 19 months old, was subject to “undetermined homicidal violence” and may have suffered abuse. The medical examiner said the child had three rib bone fractures.

In opening statements at her trial Tuesday, public defender Bryan Collins said McNeil had agreed to give up her rights to DeVarion. Family and friends had cared for him, but the boy's father, Eric Chambers, pressured McNeil to get the child back before he was released from prison.

When Chambers went back to prison in May 2008, the pressure on McNeil increased.

"It was by no means a model home or model family. Sherita could have been a much better mother," Collins said.

McNeil was living with DeVarion, who was nicknamed Poodie, and her daughter in Garner at the time of her arrest.

Collins said DeVarion fell into a coffee table. McNeil shook the child, but he did not respond. Believing he was dead, McNeil picked up the phone to call for help, but changed her mind, he said.

"Fear came over her, fear of going to jail and Eric Chambers," Collins said.

Collins said McNeil feared Chambers would kill her if he found out.

So, McNeil put the body in a trash bag, Collins said. She would take DeVarion’s dead body out every night and sleep with him. When he began to smell, she poured bleach on the trash bag and then put the body back in it.

"She was trying to work up the courage to tell her family what happened," Collins said. "She was depressed and sad. Her child was dead."

McNeil's brother, Antonio McNeil, testified on Tuesday that he found the child's body at his sister's home on Nov. 14, 2008. He said he went to the apartment at the urging of their mother who was concerned about McNeil and the child.

After opening the closet, Antonio McNeil said he smelled bleach. He opened a large plastic container that was inside the closet and began pulling out the contents – sheets and a plastic bag. In the bag, he said he saw an outline of a head.

"I just dropped to my knees," Antonio McNeil said. "I just figured it was him."

A search of McNeil’s home that day revealed DeVarion’s body, wearing only a diaper, wrapped in two plastic bags in a trash can that had been drenched with bleach.

“The boy was shoved into a plastic Rubbermaid container with clothing and bed linens drenched in bleach to contain the smell,” Assistant District Attorney Melanie Shekita said.

Police said DeVarion was last seen alive Oct. 3, 2008.

Shekita said family and friends were concerned and repeatedly asked to Sherita McNeil if they could see DeVarion during the six weeks before his body was found. Shekita said McNeil refused and then disappeared for several days.

When the child was found, Shekita said, there was almost nothing left of him, he was so badly decomposed.

Collins said Sherita McNeil told police the truth about what happened.

"It does not add up to murder," he said.

Shekita confirmed the defense attorney’s statement that McNeil told police the child hit his head after jumping off of the couch and died immediately.

Shekita said McNeil repeatedly told people, including Ira James, the father of her daughter, how much she hated DeVarion.

Prosecutors quoted a letter to James found by police that said , "I hated that baby and Eric the whole time. All I have for them is hate.”

"I don't love him and I never will," the letter stated.

Shekita said the medical examiner found that DeVarion's rib fractures showed a history of abuse and proved that his death could not have happened the way McNeil said it did.

Wake County Child Protective Services had two reports from individuals concerned about DeVarion, during his lifetime, said Warren Ludwig, child welfare administrator for Wake County, including allegations that McNeil never wanted the child and was having financial difficulties.

Both sources told Child Protective Services that prior to DeVarion's birth, McNeil had arranged for a friend to raise him, but reclaimed him when he was 8 months old.

CPS did not act on those reports, but sent a letter detailing the information to the Garner Police Department for review.

Shekita said McNeil told a co-worker she often whipped DeVarion and threw him against a wall. Also, a daycare teacher noticed a mark she thought was from a belt on the child's back.

Shekita said McNeil started dating a man shortly after DeVarion's death.

"He was having sex with the defendant while her dead child was in the closet," Shekita said.

The man smelled something, but told authorities that he thought McNeil's house was just dirty.

Testimony will continue on Wednesday.


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