The dark, revolting images on the massive monitor screen showed Gizzell Ford, just months removed from winning her school spelling bee and collecting a straight-A report card, with piles of trash heaped around her bruised, scarred body.
Then came video of the third-grader, swaying drowsily, her hair askew and eyes distant, as her grandmother and father taunted and shoved her.
More video — the same — except for a rag stuffed in the girl’s mouth.
The girl’s bruises and cuts, one infected and flecked with maggots, were inflicted over a period of months by Gizzell’s grandmother, Helen Ford, who was convicted in March of first-degree murder in Gizzell’s death.
At a sentencing hearing Wednesday, members of Helen Ford’s family — a half-dozen of whom had just testified to Ford’s kindness and good character — averted their eyes from the screen.
Assistant State’s Attorney Ashley Romito stared at Ford. “Everyone in this room recoils at that video but her,” Romito said, pointing out Ford.
The video, filmed on Helen Ford’s cellphone not long before Gizzell was found dead four years ago, was played near the finale of Romito’s closing argument seeking that the 55-year-old Ford spend the rest of her life in prison.
Judge Evelyn Clay concurred, handing down a life sentence despite pleas from Ford’s supporters, who had testified that Ford was a kind, generous woman who had become overwhelmed by the burdens of caring for a bed-ridden adult son and other family.
“This was a deliberate, excruciatingly painful way to die,” Clay said during a lengthy preamble to her sentence, an address punctuated with long pauses and glares at Ford and the defendant’s family. “Helen Ford did know how to say ‘no.’ She did know how to say ‘no’ to Gizzell. No water. No food. No sleep.
“She did not know how to say ‘yes’ to Gizzell. She did not say ‘yes’ to the basic requirements of human care.”
Helen Ford gave a rambling, 15-minute description of the grueling circuit of trips to schools and hospitals that had been her routine as she cared for her bed-ridden son, Andre, Gizzell and two other children.
“Gizzell got to point that she was throwing herself around, and they need to know that it’s the honest to God truth on everything I live,” Ford said.
“Miss Ford, that’s enough,” the judge interjected. “Enough. Enough.”
On a July afternoon in 2013, paramedics were dispatched to Ford’s West Side apartment and found Gizzell’s lifeless, battered body. An autopsy found she had been strangled and suffered blunt-force trauma, and that her kidneys were on the verge of failure caused by lack of food and water.
Gizzell chronicled the abuse almost daily in a diary, though penmanship grew weaker and entries darker as her death neared, Romito pointed out.
“I hate this life because now I’m in super big trouble by cousin Eric and it’s all a big mistake but nobody want to believe me,” Gizzell wrote in an entry dated less than two weeks before her body was found. “I really think that I’m a jerk.”
During the nearly five-hour hearing Wednesday, a half-dozen of Ford’s relatives took the stand as character witnesses. Many said they had spent time in Ford’s care, or left their own children with her. Ford, who had been unable to work because of a back injury, cared for Gizzell’s invalid father, who suffered a debilitating illness called chronic scleroderma. Andre Ford, who also had been charged in Gizzell’s murder, died in 2014 while awaiting trial.
“I know deep down in my heart she didn’t try to kill Gizzy,” said Ford’s younger sister, Joyce.
Gizzell Ford had been placed in the care of her father and grandmother by the state Department of Children and Family Services, after her mother had been reported as homeless. Lawyers for her mother, Sandra Mercado, have sued the state, claiming that the timeline of the abuse and visits from DCFS staffers showed numerous instances where child welfare authorities could have rescued Gizzell from the torture.
Testifying for the prosecution on Wednesday, Mercado’s sister said that Gizzell likely could have forgiven Ford. “You may have broken her body by torture, but you never broke her spirit,” she said. “If she had one last breath, I know she would use it to tell you she loved you.”