Deliberation begins in case of Nashua toddler's death

NASHUA – After more than two weeks of testimony, jurors are expected to begin deliberating this morning on whether Nicole Belonga murdered her 21-month-old daughter. Belonga, 27, of 65 Alder Drive, could face up to life in prison if convicted of second-degree murder, but the charge carries no mandatory minimum.

On Tuesday afternoon, jurors heard several hours of arguments from the defense and prosecution on what evidence they should consider and what conclusions they ought to draw from it about Rylea Belonga’s death in 2006. One of Belonga’s lawyers, public defender John Newman, argued that police focused on the wrong suspect from the start. “The state has the wrong person on trial,” Newman said, adding much later, “They were wrong, and they irresponsibly focused on one person, Nicole Belonga, when they had a duty to look at everyone.”

Newman suggested police should have looked harder at the babysitter, Angie Baldwin, and her fiance, David Kaley, who was with Rylea when she collapsed into seizure. “We know something happened at McKean Street, and David Kaley is trying to hide something,” he said. “Send Nicole home, and let her do the one thing she hasn’t properly been able to do in two years, let her grieve for her daughter,” he said.

Senior Assistant Attorney General Susan Morrell countered that Kaley had no reason to hurt Rylea and argued the medical evidence combined with Belonga’s admissions prove that she killed her daughter in a fit of pique.

“We know from the evidence that it was not Angie Baldwin. It was not David Kaley. . . . Rylea was dying long before she got there,” Morrell said.

Rylea died of severe swelling in her brain, caused when the blood flow was shut off by an injury to the carotid artery in her neck, Morrell argued, and doctors all agreed that it could not have happened by accident, but only by violent shaking and other such abuse. “The injuries to Rylea tell you what she did, how she did it and when she did it,” Morrell said.

Experts also agreed that it was likely that Rylea had been injured a long time – six to 24 hours – before she was first examined at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, Morrell said.

Various witnesses saw and testified that Rylea seemed lethargic Thursday evening and Friday morning, Morrell said, and what they were noting was the slow swelling and death of her brain, she argued.

Even before she collapsed, Morrell said, “Angie and David knew that something was wrong with Rylea, and the defendant knew it, too.”

Witnesses also testified that Belonga had been stressed out over money and her living situation in the days beforehand, Morrell said. Belonga herself spoke with detectives, and after several hours, she described two incidents in which she admitted she’d handled Rylea roughly.

Belonga didn’t mention either incident to the doctors treating her daughter, earlier that morning, Morrell noted, but she told police she’d become frustrated while changing a messy diaper, and again when Rylea kept slapping her. Belonga also told detectives that she had an anger problem, though she later denied it, Morrell said.

Newman argued that, in fact, the medical testimony was “contradictory and inconclusive,” and argued jurors should ignore Belonga’s interview with police.

He said Belonga was badgered by detectives and finally recounted two otherwise unremarkable incidents that prosecutors then exaggerated into horrific acts of abuse. “She was worn down by the police, and finally she agrees with the lines the police were feeding her,” Newman said, adding much later, “That entire statement is worthless, and it can’t be used against her.”

That said, Newman found some points worth emphasizing in the video. Belonga became overwrought when police told her about Rylea’s grave condition near the end of the interview, he said, and insisted that she had to go, wailing, “Everything that means anything in the world to me is down in that hospital.”

While the incidents Belonga described were not severe enough to cause Rylea’s injuries and death, Morrell noted that Belonga expressed guilt, saying at one point that she felt “like a monster” and another, “I managed to remember, and now I’m going to be in so much trouble for it and my daughter might die.”

“She didn’t make this up. It didn’t come out of thin air,” Morrell said. “Really, if you didn’t hurt your daughter . . . why would you tell the police that you did?”