HAYWARD, CALIF. — HAYWARD, Calif. -- This is a grim tale, one that begins with the death of a child, then gets worse.
Tragedy first came calling one morning last August, when a Fremont, Calif., couple found their 4-year-old daughter dead in her bed. The coroner said the child had stopped breathing, but no one could explain why.
Then at Christmastime a clue turned up right down the hallway -- in their other daughter's bedroom. In a chilling entry on Page 1 of her locked diary, the 14-year-old girl made what appeared to be an unmistakable confession:
"Dear Diary . . . I killed my sister! I went into her room and got her and took her into my room and told her I loved her and covered her mouth and suffocated her!"
Now the troubled teen-ager is on trial for murder here in the San Francisco suburbs. She insists she didn't do it, declaring that she fabricated the diary entry to give her grieving mother an explanation for the mysterious death.
Her family accepts the story, but Alameda County prosecutors are convinced they have found their killer. They charge that an "emotionally disturbed" girl murdered her beloved stepsister to "rescue" her from a home of misery, a place where molestation by her father and neglect by both parents were the norm.
"In her mind, she did the only rational thing she could, she murdered" her stepsister, Deputy District Attorney Matthew Golde argued in court yesterday. He said the girl confessed in her diary "because she couldn't carry that burden on her shoulders any longer."
Melvin Belli, the adolescent's famed defense lawyer, called the charges "pure nonsense." The 4-year-old, he said, died of natural causes, succumbing to an acute attack of the asthma that had plagued her since birth.
Mr. Belli and fellow defense attorney Shelley Antonio concede that their client suffered a tortured home life. But they say her fondness for her sister provided a vital refuge from that torment -- one she would never destroy.
The two girls "were surrounded by ugliness and evil, violation and cruelty," attorney Antonio said during final arguments yesterday. Their mutual love "was an oasis in a hurricane of pain. . . . There is absolutely no motive, no reason [the defendant] would take a life that meant so much to her."
A freshman at Washington High School in Fremont, the teen-ager was arrested last Dec. 27 after her mother and stepfather gave her tiny green diary to police. She remains in Juvenile Hall, and her name, along with those of her relatives, is being kept confidential because she is a minor.
Now in its third week, the trial has captivated the blue-collar city of Fremont.
With its horrific themes, bizarre courtroom twists, sobbing witnesses and flamboyant defense attorney, the Superior Court trial also has been a media sensation. A TV movie is in the works.
In making his case, the district attorney relied on testimony from an Alameda County coroner, who concluded that the toddler died of "traumatic asphyxia," perhaps as a result of someone crushing her back or her chest.
Dr. Paul W. Hermann also testified that the youngster had been sodomized at the time of death, or immediately before it, and that older scars indicated a history of sodomy over the past year.
Mr. Golde blamed the toddler's father for the sexual abuse, and noted that the defendant herself had once complained to police of being molested by him. That charge was investigated and dropped, and the stepfather denied the accusation on the witness stand.
Defense attorneys say a murder never occurred. Instead, a defense pathologist testified, the toddler was killed by a rare and intense asthma attack.
As for the diary, lawyer Antonio called it a "desperate attempt" to "get her mother's attention" and "provide closure" to her family's endless agonizing over why their youngest child had died.