Trial begins for woman accused of beating 3-year-old girl to death
Rochester, N.Y. (WHAM) - Opening statements were presented in front of a judge Monday morning in the murder trial for Erica Bell. Instead of a jury of 12 hearing and seeing all evidence in the case, Monroe County Court Judge Christopher Ciaccio will be the sole determiner of an innocent or guilty verdict.
Bell, 24, is charged with murder and manslaughter in the case. Bell is the girlfriend of Michael Stagles, Brook's father. The two are being tried separately.
Michael Stagles is charged with criminally negligent homicide in his daughter's death.
Brook died on November 14, one day after being taken to the hospital with serious injuries. Her death was ruled a homicide.
A medical examiner determined that the toddler died from abdominal blunt force trauma. Her autopsy also lists multiple lacerations and contusions from head to toe.
Prosecutors came right out of the gate, not mincing words.
"She [Brook] was beaten and killed by a 24-year-old woman, the defendant, Erica Bell," Pat Gallagher said. "Her wicked, evil and inhuman, depraved inactions caused Brook's slow, painful, tortured death days later."
Prosecutors painted a timeline of events, saying Brook Stagles was first beaten by Erica Bell in the abdomen on Friday, November 11, 2016. One day later, they say Brook's health was declining from the repeated blows. The mother of one of Michael Stagles' children insisted Brook go to the hospital, and did not leave the home until Bell got in the car with her grandmother and left with Brook.
They never went to the hospital.
Prosecutors say Bell, a drug addict, needed her fix and took the toddler to Clinton Avenue to buy drugs. At the time, Bell was also wanted on a warrant for drug court.
Later that night, she was arrested. Prosecutors say jailhouse phone calls from Bell try to persuade Michael Stagles not to take his daughter to the hospital.
The next day, Stagles took a lifeless Brook to Rochester General Hospital. Doctors were able to revive her, but Monday, after being transferred to Strong Memorial Hospital, Brook died.
“Only one person caused these deadly injuries by forcefully punching an innocent, defenseless child in the stomach,” the prosecution said. “She was slowly and painfully dying right in front of those who were supposed to take care of her. Make no mistake, others could have saved Brook's life.”
The prosecution also claims, once Brook passed, Erica Bell admitted to her grandmother in jailhouse phone calls that she beat the baby to death, saying, "I just killed a little girl."
The defense team, however, says this doesn’t tell the whole story. They claim Bell and Brook Stagles were victims of domestic violence at the hands of Brook’s father.
Bell's lawyers say she has no history of child abuse or neglect, but that Michael Stagles does.
"Victims of domestic violence will do everything to protect themselves from their abuser," attorney Larry Kasperek said.
Kasperek said Bell lied in her jailhouse interviews to her grandmother to protect herself from abuse at the hands of Stagles. "I lied to you," Kasperek said, repeating the jailhouse phone call between Bell and her grandmother. "I didn't tell you the truth. I need an order of protection. Can you protect me from Michael? If Michael finds out I tell you this, he's going to hurt me."
John Geer, the grandfather of Brooks Stagles, says the defense is just scraping for something. "She's just scared," Geer said. "That's all they have, that's all the defense has."
Geer says he wants to focus his energy and helping uplift a Child Protective Services that he says is in crisis. "This is why CPS needs to be able to do their job, to take their time, assess the situation is and take care of these kids," he said. "What happened to Brook was avoidable."
13WHAM News will continue to update this story as more information becomes available.