Friday, August 29, 2008

Jury selection begins in Zahid murder trial


In May 2007, 3-year-old Zahid Jones suffered a brutal death - beaten over three nights until his intestines ruptured, liver hemorrhaged, stomach bruised and chest torn, according to authorities.

This week, prosecutors will seek to punish his mother's boyfriend by putting the 30-year-old in prison for the rest of his life.

Jury selection in the trial of Kashon Scott is scheduled to begin today, with opening arguments starting Tuesday and the trial lasting through the week.

Assistant State Attorney Francine Donnorummo said the jury should focus on the facts of the case, but she will set the tone for jurors.

"You have to have the jury feel that energy and hear the facts, which are emotional," she said.

Scott is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse and faces life in prison because prosecutors last month said they won't seek the death penalty against him. Also charged in Zahid's death is the boy's mother, Nicole Brewington, who faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of aggravated manslaughter of a child. Only Scott will be on trial this week, as their cases have been separated.

Donnorummo said Zahid's siblings will testify during the trial, which may make the case tough for jurors to hear.

"Whenever you have children testify - especially about a deceased sibling - it's tough on the children, in all cases," she said.

Scott's attorney, assistant regional counsel Michael Reiter, had no comment.

The case sparked change at The Department of Children and Families, which had investigated Zahid's family and admitted it failed to protect him.

Since Zahid's death, the Lee County Sheriff's Office began reviewing all claims of abuse and neglect flowing into DCF's child abuse hot line. The department now employs a grandparents' liaison. Zahid's grandmother, Janice Jones, had warned of problems in her grandson's home but was told she had no right to make a claim. DCF cases are now red-flagged and teams of staffers meet to discuss the best plan for the children involved. Also, the investigator training program has been revamped and communication among agencies improved, Cookie Coleman, head of DCF operations in Southwest Florida, has said.

Rep. Nick Thompson, R-Fort Myers, introduced a bill last legislative session that would have given grandparents and other caregiver relatives more of a say in family court proceedings, although it failed in the Senate after passing in the House unanimously.

Thompson's newest plan is to bring to Florida programs in Texas and Colorado that pair nurses and nursing students with at-risk mothers, visiting the mothers once a week from before birth until their children are 3 years old. At-risk mothers would be identified as low-income and single who need help with parenting skills. Thompson said the program gets mothers more invested in their children's lives.

"They're a whole lot less likely to let some jerk come in and abuse and neglect their children," he said.

Thompson, a former assistant state attorney, has had the duty of putting criminals in prison. Now, part of his job is to introduce and vote on new laws that can further the goal. He said both jobs serve an important role.

And punishment for Scott, whom he believes is responsible for Zahid's death, is key.

"People in Lee County and around the state have to know if you harm a child, you are going to be punished severely," he said.

But, he said the deaths of children shouldn't be the reason changes are made in government.

"We don't want to have these tragedies before these things happen," Thompson said. "We've got a lot of lessons we can learn from this."

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