A woman charged with murder in the death of her stepson told a court Tuesday she knew the 10-year-old was being beaten and kept chained by his father, but didn't think he would die from the injuries.
Even after Nichelle Boothe-Rowe found Shakeil Boothe's lifeless body in the family's basement on May 26, 2011, she believed he had died from the cold that had dogged him for weeks, rather than the months of abuse he endured, she told the court.
Her husband beat his son with a looped belt "once or twice a week," she testified, and once stomped on the boy's chest in a fit of rage after Shakeil tore a page out of the Bible.
And in the months leading up to the boy's death, Garfield Boothe had chained his son to his bed every morning before leaving for work, she said.
But though she had seen Shakeil with a black eye, cuts on his legs and wounds on his knuckles, Boothe-Rowe didn't think the injuries were "serious or life-threatening," she said.
She and Boothe are both charged with second-degree murder in Shakeil's death.
Court has heard autopsy results showed widespread internal bleeding that overwhelmed Shakeil's body, already weakened by malnutrition and severe infection.
Stepmom found boy on floor
On the stand Tuesday, Boothe-Rowe remembered calling for Shakeil to come up for breakfast that morning and getting no answer, then going downstairs to check on the child only to find him sprawled on the floor.
There was no blood on his body, but his feet were cold and blue-black and he had no pulse, she said.
She immediately called her husband at work and was told not to call 911 until he got home, she said, adding she never went back into the basement.
Boothe "wasn't shocked" to find his firstborn dead, his wife testified. He moved Shakeil's body upstairs to the boy's bedroom, where paramedics found him the next day.
He also told Boothe-Rowe they couldn't call authorities until she moved out of the house, she said. The pair wasn't supposed to live together under the conditions of Boothe's probation, which included a no-contact order, she testified.
Since her stepson's death, Boothe-Rowe said she has been plagued with regret that she didn't do more to protect him. But she worried her husband — who she said had a history of domestic abuse — would turn his anger on her or their infant son if she intervened, she told the court.
"I had fear of it coming back to me," said Boothe-Rowe, dressed in a black suit over a pink collared shirt.
Photos taken to provide proof of abuse
Court heard she took photographs of Shakeil chained to his bed as proof the boy's father was abusive. Boothe-Rowe said she meant to send the photos to the boy's birth mother, who lives in the U.S., but never did.
She said Boothe would chain Shakeil to the boy's bed "sporadically" in the fall, but just a few months later, it became a daily routine.
The stepmother said she tried to talk him out of it several times but it became easier to simply free Shakeil once his father was gone, using the keys she kept "in case of emergency."
Boothe took great pains to keep the practice hidden, though his mother-in-law once saw the boy in chains, Boothe-Rowe said.
"When there would be visitors in the household, Garfield would unchain Shakeil," she told the court.
The photos show a young person lying on the floor and chained by the ankle to a bed, while covered from the face to their knees by what looks like a blanket.
The pathologist who examined Shakeil's body analysed the photos in court and said the body shape and size, as well as injuries seen on the shins, were consistent with what he saw on Shakeil during the boy's autopsy.
Stepmom once struck boy with belt
Boothe-Rowe admitted she once struck Shakeil with a looped belt, but said her husband insisted on disciplining the boy himself after she made it clear she wouldn't hit him again.
She told the court she wanted to take Shakeil to the doctor in the days before he died, offering to have him tag along when she brought the baby for his eight-month checkup.
"He needed medical help" for his cold, she said, but her husband refused.
"I believe Garfield wasn't taking Shakeil to the doctor because of what he had done to him and the injuries and stuff that he had," she said.
Court has heard the couple's relationship was tumultuous from the beginning. They met in Florida when Boothe-Rowe was 17 and it wasn't long before the teen was sneaking out of her father's home to meet up with him, she said.
Over the years, the couple broke up and reconciled repeatedly as Boothe became more violent, his wife said.
It didn't take much to set him off, particularly when he was drinking or smoking marijuana, she said. A poorly cooked meal could trigger an argument that would quickly turn to blows, she said.
She recalled a 2004 incident in Florida in which Boothe held her and her sister "hostage" with a machete and pressed the blade against her neck. Though she eventually called police, no charges were laid because she believed Boothe had mental health issues, she said.
"Garfield was my first love, I didn't know any relationship but Garfield," she told the court.
Things didn't improve once the couple moved to Canada in 2005, she said.
Boothe was constantly suspicious that she was cheating on him, and his fears only intensified when Boothe-Rowe went back to school a few years later, she said.
He would strip her down and "check" her to see if she'd "slept with anyone else" when she got home, Boothe-Rowe said.
Police were frequently called to the house by Boothe-Rowe herself or by the couple's neighbours, but Boothe typically ran away, she said.
Boothe-Rowe said she stopped calling police after the baby was born because she feared for his safety.