A prosecutor argued Wednesday that Donald Nelson and his live-in girlfriend, Moneesha Camp, should stand trial on a murder charge in connection with the beating death of Nelson’s 3-year-old son.
Police said the boy, named Zion, was covered with scars, abrasions and bruises from being beaten with a hanger, belt and electrical cord over a long period of time.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Arlan Harrell, however, said he needed time to read case law before he decides whether Camp should be tried for murder.
At issue is whether Camp, 25, had a duty to protect Zion from his 28-year-old father, whose explosive temper, police said, caused him to punch holes in the walls of the family’s apartment on Saginaw Way near Palm and Dakota avenues.
Harrell said he would make his ruling Thursday afternoon.
In his short life, Zion was taken away from his prostitute/mother by Child Protective Services and handed over to his father, Nelson, who lived in foster care most of his life.
In addition to murder, Harrell must decide whether Nelson and Camp should stand trial on a charge of assault on a child causing death and for beating Zion’s 5-year-old brother, who police said was in the family’s apartment when Zion was killed in January 2014.
“(The older brother) heard whipping sounds. He heard Zion scream. And then it stopped,” detective Ignacio Ruiz told the judge.
Afterward, the older brother told police he saw his dad put Zion in the shower in an attempt to wake him up, Ruiz testified.
The boy then saw his father take Zion out of the shower and put his lifeless body on the living room floor, the detective said.
The couple is accused of telling the 5-year-old to lie to police about what happened to Zion, prosecutor William Lacy said.
Instead, the boy told police that Camp and Nelson also beat him with an electrical cord, clothes hangers and a belt, Ruiz testified.
Nelson and Camp face life in prison if convicted.
When Police Chief Jerry Dyer announced the couple’s arrest on Jan. 2, 2014, the chief paused often during a somber news conference as he described Zion’s injuries — cuts and bruises on Zion’s head and scars on his back from previous beatings.
“In fact, this boy’s back, buttocks, thighs, arms, chest and stomach were completely covered with marks, bruises and cuts,” Dyer said. “Looking at the photographs of the injuries, it is very apparent that this child had endured a lot of suffering.”
The case began when officers responded to a 911 call and found Zion wearing just his underwear and wrapped in a blanket in the back seat of Nelson’s car at Palm and Garland avenues — just a few blocks from the family home.
During a daylong hearing Wednesday, Harrell learned of Zion’s tragic death from Fresno police officer Ron Flowers and homicide detectives Michael Gebhart and Ruiz.
Gebhart testified that a county pathologist told him that Zion died of fatal child abuse syndrome.
“It was blunt force strikes to his entire body over time that caused the body to basically shut down,” Gebhart told the judge.
Zion lived with Nelson and Camp a little over a year before police found him dead the back seat of his father’s silver Pontiac four-door sedan on Jan. 2, 2014, at Palm and Garland avenues.
Initially, Nelson told police he and his son were living in the car and that he spanked his son for soiling his pants during the early hours of Jan. 2, 2014, Flowers testified.
In spanking the child, Flowers testified, Nelson told him that he held the child upside down by holding one leg. He then used his other hand to spank the child’s buttocks.
Sometime later, Nelson said his son’s body started jerking, so he gave the child water around 4 a.m., Flowers testified.
Flowers testified that Nelson told him that he thought Zion went to sleep. But then he found him unresponsive. “He said it was his fault,” Flowers testified.
Nelson told a different account to Ruiz.
Ruiz testified that Nelson told him that after Zion soiled his pants in the car, he used a belt to whip the child about 10 times. At one point, he lost his grip, and Zion fell, hitting his shoulder on the car door before hitting the ground, causing him to become unresponsive.
Lacy, however, said both accounts were lies to cover up what happened in the apartment.
Gebhart testified that the couple’s neighbors told him that Nelson and Camp often yelled at Zion and his older brother and they could hear the couple hitting the kids inside their apartment. One time, the racket was so intense, a neighbor reported that one of her framed pictures fell off the wall, Gebhart said.
In the early hours of Jan. 2, 2014, Gebhart said, a neighbor told him that she saw Nelson’s car at the apartment. Then around 3:15 a.m., she heard loud voices coming from the the couple’s apartment. The neighbor also “felt bumping through the wall,” the detective said.
Gebhart said the neighbor heard Nelson say: “How do you like that?” Then she heard a child’s voice say, “Aaahhh.”
When the commotion wouldn’t cease, the neighbor said: “That’s enough.”
Around 5 a.m., Gebhart said the neighbor went outside and didn’t see Nelson’s car.
In completing his testimony, Gebhart told the judge that Zion’s injuries included multiple linear abrasions and bruises and hemorrhaging in his head, chest, shoulder and legs. He also had two cracked ribs and bleeding in his kidneys and pancreas.