Philly mother convicted in baby's starvation death

May 14, 2013 - 9:35 PM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A mother of six whose infant son starved to death at a homeless shelter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter on Tuesday.

Tanya Williams had shown no emotion when paramedics found her emaciated, lifeless son alone on a bed, wearing only a diaper, two days before Christmas 2010, according to testimony. Quasir Alexander was 2 months old and weighed just over 4 pounds, a half-pound less than his birth weight.

The jury also convicted Williams, 34, of the aggravated assault of the infant's surviving twin, who was found near death, and of child endangerment. It found Williams not guilty of first-degree murder but deadlocked on third-degree murder and the attempted murder of the twin.

Defense lawyer Gregory Pagano called his client, who has a low IQ, "a scapegoat" for the failings of social workers, doctors and others and said the jury found that she had "no intent" to harm her son.

"We never thought it was a murder case," Pagano said Tuesday. "And I guess the jury really didn't think so either."

A city-funded caseworker had seen the 2-month-old boys 36 hours earlier and deemed them healthy. The caseworker also released Williams from a voluntary parenting class. The now-fired caseworker never saw the twins unclothed, her boss at Lutheran Children and Family Service testified.

Williams faces five to 10 years in prison for aggravated assault of a minor, a term that a judge could run concurrent or consecutive to the lesser charges. Her sentencing is set for June 28. She has been in prison since her arrest more than two years ago, and she has lost custody of her children.

The trial prosecutor argued that Williams hid the fact she wasn't feeding the twins from two caseworkers and a visiting nurse. Williams did not testify, so it's unclear if she ever tried to feed them. There was powdered formula found in her room at the Travelers Aid shelter, and she had told a caseworker she had enough milk for them until January.

The caseworker, Cleo Smalls, invoked her constitutional right not to testify when called by the defense. No one else has been charged in the case.

Executive Director Richard Gitlen said in staff emails afterward that he was ashamed of his agency, Pagano told jurors in opening statements. But the trial judge stopped him from grilling Gitlen about those emails when the agency head testified, apparently ruling that they were not relevant to the charges against Williams.

Gitlen issued a statement after the verdict calling the infant's death "a horrible tragedy."

"Through the years we have dedicated ourselves to tens of thousands of children," he said. "It is that commitment that compels us to learn from this loss so that we may continue to serve children and families."

Assistant District Attorney Peter Lim told jurors that Williams failed to take advantage of help offered by Smalls, a shelter worker and the visiting nurse.

Williams' case files suggest that she repeatedly made appointments to take her children for vaccines or checkups or to apply for food stamps or other programs but rarely followed through.

The twins were born at a hospital on Oct. 21 and 22 and were released on Oct. 25. Their mother had not had any prenatal visits and did not know she was carrying twins.

Williams had become homeless in September after arguments with her mother over her boyfriend, the father of her four youngest children, who was in and out of jail. A church friend then took her in, but she left after they argued over religion. The pregnant Williams curled up one night with her children in the lobby of the city's Department of Human Services in an effort to get help.

The agency deemed her family a low to moderate risk and steered her to the voluntary parenting program run by Gitlen's agency, which was funded by the city. That decision apparently was based on the fact Williams had done well with her oldest four, according to Gitlen, who was not involved in the decision.

But school records aired in court show the oldest girls had been chronically truant the year before and one was dressing provocatively and bullying other girls at her new school.

Williams has an IQ of 65, Pagano argued. According to her Lutheran case file, she was excited when she had the twins, at least partly because she thought it would help her get into public housing.

It's unclear whether prosecutors plan to retry the deadlocked counts, which followed two days of deliberations. Lim and an office spokeswoman did not immediately return phone and email messages Tuesday evening.