CLEVELAND — After deliberating for just under a day, a jury returned a guilty verdict for Sierra Day and Deonte Lewis who were accused of killing Day’s 4-year-old child, Aniya Day-Garrett.
Jurors found Day and Lewis guilty of aggravated murder, murder, felonious assault, permitting child abuse, three counts of endangering children and tampering with evidence.
"This is the first step in responsibility and accountability in Aniya’s death," said Paul Grieco, the attorney for Aniya's birth father, Mickhal Garrett. "There are certainly other responsible parties that will be held accountable. The system failed Aniya and the Garrett family and that system will be held accountable."
The dramatic conclusion of the trial followed five days of testimony by witnesses including Aniya’s father, Day’s sister, detectives, a social worker and a forensic specialist who examined Aniya’s body.
"Whenever a child is harmed in our community we want to get justice for them," said Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Aqueelah Jordan afte the verdict was announced. "We are pleased the process worked the way it did."
On Wednesday morning, the prosecution and defense lawyers for Day and Lewis presented their closing arguments.
Day’s defense lawyer argued that the evidence shows that Day did not purposefully or intentionally cause the death of her daughter.
“Is there a sinister motive in the things that she said and did? Is there a sinister motive in how she acted and responded? Or, is she a young lady that operates in the bottom 3 percent of our population? Is she a young lady with such cognitive difficulties that she doesn’t understand some of those things?” Day’s defense attorney said.
Lewis’ attorney defended her client by trying to pin Aniya’s death solely on her mother.
“He didn’t want this child to die, that’s why when he found her unresponsive, he called 911, he wanted to save her life,” said Lewis’ defense attorney during closing arguments Wednesday.
Prosecutors argued that both Day and Lewis failed the little girl when they abused her and left her to die in a Euclid apartment last March.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, Sierra Day failed miserably in the care of her only child…Deonte Lewis failed miserably as her stepfather, her father, her whatever title he gave himself and he failed as a human being,” one state prosecutor said during closing arguments.
On March 11, 2018, authorities responded to the Cultural Garden Apartments in Euclid. First responders found the girl unresponsive. Aniya was transported to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead.
Aniya’s death was ruled a homicide. Day and Lewis were arrested and later indicted on aggravated murder charges.
A nurse told the jury that Aniya had no cardiac activity when she arrived at the hospital. The nurse suggested that Aniya was already dead by the time she arrived at the hospital.
“My observations were the little girl was skin and bones. Her eyes were wide-open. Her mouth was open,” the nurse said. “Bruised. Fragile. Stiff. Cold.”
Aniya died from a stroke caused by a blow to the head about 10 days to two weeks before the day she was taken to the hospital, according to the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office.
During the trial, Sierra Day’s sister told the jury she noticed changes in her niece’s appearance and behavior.
The sister said changes became noticeable after Lewis came into the picture. On occasions when Day brought Aniya to family gatherings, the child seemed different. First it was her behavior and later her appearance.
“She didn’t really seem like a child. She was very standoffish. She didn’t really seem happy,” Day’s sister said on the stand.
Then the physical changes began to become noticeable.
“She was getting smaller. I thought maybe it had something to do with her getting taller. When toddlers grow, they slim out a little bit. She was getting littler and littler to the point you could see the extension of her stomach sticking out," said the sister, referring to Aniya during a July 2017 family party.
Aniya’s autopsy results confirmed those statements.
Deputy Medical Examiner Joseph Felo testified Tuesday that Aniya died slowly.
“She didn’t receive the injury and die, she lingered for a while,” Felo said. He testified that Aniya’s body slowly withered away as her organs revolted against her.
Additional testimony from the deputy medical examiner indicated that Aniya suffered from chronic physical abuse and neglect.
"I think it’s the overall evidence was clear cut," Grieco said. "The photos obviously were horrendous and the ongoing period of abuse over a long period of time."
During an initial examination at the medical examiner’s office, Felo says he found Aniya to be “very, very thin” and “extremely malnourished.” At just over 3 feet tall, she weighed 26 pounds, he said. To put things in perspective for the jury, Felo told them that 97 percent of other children around her height weighed much more. Due to the malnourishment, her skin was loose from the loss of fat and muscle tissue underneath. Aniya’s body mass index was around 11. Children her size typically have a body mass index of approximately 18, Felo said.
Additionally, the deputy medical examiner said Aniya had a black eye, blisters, signs of bed sores and her lungs had been collapsing. She also suffered with pancreatitis from the lack of food and had stomach ulcers.
During the trial, Euclid police detectives testified that evidence collected from the apartment indicated that before calling 911, Day and Lewis attempted to clean the crime scene.
“The apartment itself was very, very clean,” Detective Phil Tschetter said.
Tschetter said he noticed several different types of household cleaners on a counter. He told the jury that some of the towels in the bathroom were wet and it suggests that Day and Lewis attempted to clean the crime scene before calling the police to report Aniya wasn’t breathing.
“I mean [the apartment] was practically immaculate. It was very, very tidy. Neat,” Tschetter said. “There was no disarray of any kind…The apartment smelled strongly of bleach.”
Day and Lewis will be sentenced on March 20.
“For Aniya, today is a day for her spirit to be at peace," Jordan said. "People finally listened to her and she was finally heard.”