Gizzell Ford, a straight-A student, was seen by almost everyone who crossed her path as a “blessing” — a lovely, bright, smart girl.
The 8-year-old, in her diary, expressed a desire to have a fulfilling relationship with her paternal grandmother nourished with deep conversation and love.
But all Helen Ford gave Gizzell was hell.
Tying her to a pole attached to her father’s bed, Gizzell was used as “punching bag,” whipped with a belt and deprived of food, water and sleep for days, Cook County prosecutors said.
“That child suffered a slow, painful, agonizing death,” an incensed Judge Evelyn Clay said Thursday before finding 55-year-old Ford guilty of murder in a case that raised criticism of how the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services handles matters that involve child abuse.
Gizzell died of strangulation in the summer of 2013, but an autopsy also showed she suffered from blunt force trauma, child neglect and “evil” child abuse, Clay said as court spectators sobbed quietly.
Ford, who prosecutors said never showed remorse nor shed a tear over her granddaughter’s brutal death, remained stoic when Clay delivered her emotional ruling. She later blew kisses to her loved ones as sheriff’s deputies took her away.
Ford may have squeezed the “life out of Gizzell’s broken body” but she had been slowly killing her for days in the “filthy, disgusting” West Side apartment where maggots latched on to the girl’s skull, Assistant State’s Attorney Jennifer Coleman said.
“Even if she didn’t strangle her, she wasn’t going to let her walk out of that apartment alive,” the prosecutor said.
Gizzell’s father, Andre Ford, was a willing participant, cheerleading the torture as he withered away from a chronic degenerative disease.
But Andre Ford — who died in 2014 while in custody in Cook County Jail for his daughter’s murder — wasn’t physically capable of the abuse, Coleman said.
In their closing arguments, Coleman and her partner, Ashley Romito, went over the girl’s journal before and after she started living with the Fords to illustrate how the abuse affected her.
“People say I’m smart, courageous and beautiful,” the honor roll student known as “Gizzy” wrote at the time she was a “healthy, strong and vital,” prosecutors said.
After the child was taken to live in the 5200 block of West Adams, her tone became more somber. “I hate this life. I really think that I’m a jerk,” she wrote.
“She [Helen Ford] first broke her body, then she broke her spirit,” Coleman said.
Fellow prosecutors sitting in court quietly sighed when Assistant Public Defender Jennifer Hodel said Helen Ford had “too much on her plate” and tied Gizzell up only because she tried to stab her father, her little cousin and tried to kill herself by jumping out of a window.
When mentioning the underwear the emaciated girl was seen wearing in a harrowing video and photos shown in court, Hodel said it was normal for some to wear so little on a hot summer day.
Helen Ford might have used questionable disciplinary methods, but she was in over her head caring for an adult bedridden son and other children, Hodel argued.
“That was the way Helen was trying to keep order, if you will, in that home,” Hodel said. “. . . Having too much on one’s plate. That’s what this case is about. Helen was overwhelmed. She was overworked. She was unable to overcome what was on her plate.”
If anything, Helen Ford should be convicted of involuntary manslaughter, Hodel argued.
Additionally, the defense attorney touched upon the DCFS case, mentioning how a judge took Gizzell away from her mother, Sandra Mercado, because they were kicked from home to home and were found wandering the streets at 2 a.m.
Romito said stories of Gizzell trying to attack family members were “unmitigated lies” by relatives who want to protect the “black-hearted” Helen Ford.
“What happened to Gizzell was an abomination. . . . It makes you lose faith in the human race,” Romito said, adding that the frail Gizzell had no chance against the nearly 300-pound, “obese” Helen Ford.
Then pointing to another one of Gizzell’s diary entries, in which the girl had written that she had “failed,” Romito adamantly said, “She didn’t fail. The system that gave her to those people failed.”
Members of the Mercado family who were in court Thursday declined to comment.
Sandra Mercado, and Gizzell’s grandfather, Juan Mercado, have sued the state Department of Children and Family Services and pediatrician Dr. Norell Rosado, but the case has been on hold as attorneys wait for evidence that had been in possession of prosecutors handling the criminal case, attorney Martin Dolan said.
Dolan said testimony in the criminal case against Helen Ford was chilling, and the timeline of the abuse showed numerous instances in which child welfare investigators should have taken action and stopped the abuse well before Gizzell’s death.
In a statement later Thursday, Dolan said Clay’s “decision shows not only that Gizzy’s grandmother was guilty but that this vicious murder could have been prevented, particularly if the doctor has done his job.”
“Clearly, the doctor who examined Gizzy just weeks before her tragic death, should have reported the visible instances of abuse,” the statement read. “All of the warning signs pointed that something was very wrong in this household and indicated that Gizzy was being abused on a regular basis. He failed to take steps to report the evidence of abuse, which would have removed her from the home, and placed into protective custody.”
When a few of Helen Ford’s relatives were asked if they wanted to comment after court Thursday, one woman raised her middle finger at reporters.