Ame Deal was forced to eat dog feces and walk barefoot on sidewalks in 114-degree heat. Sometimes the family would throw her in the pool, locked inside a footlocker.
But for Sammantha Allen, harsh punishment was normal, her attorney told jurors today as the trial began to determine if she should get death or life in prison for the murder of her 10-year-old cousin. She has already been convicted of first-degree murder.
“Her world was small and very isolated and it was dominated by her family,” defense attorney John Curry said.
“That’s all she knew. That’s all she knew,” he continued. “That was Sammantha’s frame of reference and she had no wider frame of reference.”
One juror was excused before today's hearing began, telling the court the wrenching nature of the case had left too big an emotional toll to render fair judgment.
The remaining 10 women and five men listened to Curry explain in his 20-minute opening argument that a warped sense of family loyalty led to the death of Ame on July 12, 2011.
Ame had been locked inside a box 17 inches shorter than she was in triple-degree heat and left to rot overnight as punishment for taking a Popsicle. She died weighing 60 pounds. Harsh punishment was normal in the squalid, overcrowded house near 35th Avenue and Broadway Road, which was infested by cockroaches, littered with used tampons, and stinking of urine when police arrived.
Curry argued that Allen took all her cues from her mother and Ame’s legal guardian, Cynthia Stoltzmann. She was Allen’s “moral compass,” so much so that Allen lost two husbands because she couldn’t stand to be apart from her family, demanded they move in, and left when they refused.
And when police asked her what her driving moral belief was, she told them, “Honor thy mother and father,” Curry opened with.
Allen had moved 20 times before she turned 18, always with a large contingent of that family, always landing in poor parts of town, barely getting by. The family didn’t take well to outsiders, Curry said. Allen didn’t make friends well, and when she went to school, it only lasted until fourth grade.
After that, she was homeschooled, “which is to say, no-schooled,” Curry told the jury.
Throughout the opener, Allen sat staring straight ahead, dressed in a dark suit jacket. She did not look up from her knuckles as she stood and leaned on the desk when the jury filed in and out.
Jurors did not hear more than three minutes of county prosecutor Jeannette Gallagher’s opening statement. As she began to discuss psychiatrist reports, Curry halted it with an objection, and prosecutors decided to hold their remarks until after testimony.
Consequently, the jury was not present when lawyers discussed the potential testimony of psychiatrists for each side, which could prove pivotal in determining Allen’s fate.
Gallagher had wanted to use Allen’s words in conversations with the prosecution’s psychiatrist, particularly about Ame’s death. But Curry had relied on previous court rulings to limit how much about Allen’s mental health the jury would be allowed to hear.
The psychiatrist for the defense had found Allen suffered from depression, attention deficit disorder, exposure to parental child neglect, and impairments in brain and moral development, and had lower than average intelligence.
Often defense attorneys in capital punishment cases turn to such evidence to explain barbaric acts of their convicted clients. But Curry had told the jury no excuse justified what happened to Ame, only that he’d show them “powerful reasons” to show mercy and “choose life over death.”
In their absence, now he told Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Teresa Sanders he had no plans to ask his witness “to regurgitate his report.” Instead, he planned to limit the testimony to the powerful social interactions in the troubled family.
Two members, Stoltzmann and Ame’s grandmother Judith Deal, have already been sentenced to lengthy prison terms on child abuse convictions. Allen’s husband, John “Bud” Allen, awaits trial on murder charges for the death of Ame. He is due in court next month.
Sammantha Allen drew on the older women for role modeling, Curry said, noting Stoltzmann came up with the footlocker punishment, and she “set the tone and culture of the house.”
“In that culture, in that household, she accepted ‘Ame lies. Ame steals. Ame needs to be punished,’” Curry said, quoting how family members explained the discipline to police. “She was just doing what was accepted. Everybody knew this was happening.”
After the break, Gallagher read out a one-paragraph victim impact statement. Court rules limit what could be said.
That statement was from Ame’s estranged mother, Shirley Deal, who expressed it in a letter to a judge in 2013.
“I just wanted everyone in Arizona to know how I feel about what happened to my daughter. I am so depressed from the time I get up until I go to bed at night. I go to the doctor all the time. I wish she was here with me day and night,” she wrote.
Then Shirley Deal turned her remarks to Ame’s killers: “I have not forgiven you and never will. The only thing you deserve is where you are going when you leave this earth.”
“The death penalty is too good and too easy for you. I want you to suffer till death, just like you did to my sweet little Amy,” she wrote, misspelling her daughter’s name. “They need to put you all on dog chains and feed you dog feces, as you did to my baby.”
The last woman sentenced to death in Maricopa County Superior Court was Wendy Andriano in 2004, court officials said. A jury found her guilty of bludgeoning her terminally ill husband with a bar stool and stabbing him to death.
The death of Ame Deal outraged the community and focused attention on widespread problems with Arizona’s child welfare system. Ultimately, it led to dozens of laws and millions of dollars spent overhauling that system.
The trial continues Tuesday.