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Cause of child's death at root of closing arguments in Garner mother's trial

Posted August 17, 2010 11:01 a.m. EDT
Updated August 17, 2010 10:24 p.m. EDT

— Prosecutors urged a jury Tuesday to convict a Garner woman of murder in the death of her son.

"You can convict and you should convict the first-degree murder of her son who she threw away like garbage," Assistant District Attorney Melanie Shekita said during closing arguments in the trial of Sherita McNeil

McNeil, of 1852 Spring Drive in Garner, is charged with first-degree murder and concealing the death of her son, DeVarion Gross, whose remains were found in a closet in her home in November 2008.

Shekita cited phone conversations McNeil had with Ira James, the father of her daughter, where she said she hated DeVarion and abused him.

Shekita played tapes of McNeil laughing about her treatment of the child, while he cried in the background.

Defense attorney Bryan Collins said during his closing argument that McNeil eventually told police that the child died after falling off the couch and hitting his head on the coffee table.

Collins said McNeil didn't call 911 because she was afraid of DeVarion's father, Eric Chambers, a gang member who was in prison. Collins said McNeil feared he could have her killed.

Shekita said McNeil was not afraid of Chambers. She noted letters where McNeil said she wanted to be with Chambers. The letters were signed "Sherita Chambers," though they aren't married, Shekita said.

"If it was an accident why wouldn't she have called 911," Shekita said. "It wasn't an accident."

Earlier Tuesday, Collins questioned Dr. Donald Jason, associate professor of pathology at Wake Forest University, before resting his case.

Jason, who serves as medical examiner in Forsythe County and teaches doctors to perform autopsies, told jurors, "I cannot say scientifically what the child died of, but it is possible the child died exactly how the defendant said."

His testimony contradicted what the jury heard Monday from Dr. Maryanne Gaffney-Kraft.

She said DeVarion's three rib fractures, all at various stages of healing, were a sign he was abused during the course of his short life, and that he would have been in too much pain to jump on the couch as his mother described.

“He would have been crying, he would have been fussy. Anything the child did would have been painful,” she said.

If he had fallen off the couch, she said, he would have sustained a short-fall injury.

"It is extremely rare for a child to die from a fall of less than three feet," Gaffney-Kraft said.

Because DeVarion's remains were so decomposed, the medical examiner could not pinpoint an exact cause of death.

Jason, too, declined to nail down an exact cause of death. "Nobody can tell and can give an opinion, a pathological and scientific opinion as to what the cause of death is," he said.

Shekita said the medical examiner couldn't tell what the last injury was that caused DeVarion's death because McNeil destroyed the evidence by hiding the body.

Shekita noted that his autopsy report called the rib fractures a possible sign of abuse, and concluded that DeVarion was subject to “undetermined homicidal violence.”

"How do you explain how a baby you never wanted ends up dead," Shekita said.

Holding up a photo of DeVarion's decomposing body, Collins said, "They will argue this is evidence of a murder." He said the photo only showed evidence of concealing the body.

"She did not kill her son," Collins said.

On Wednesday morning, the judge will instruct the jury on the law before they begin their deliberations.