LAWRENCEVILLE - Jurors will have to decide if two teenagers were driven to kill their abusive adoptive mother or if they staged a struggle with the woman, who brought them to America, so they could get another mother.
"This was a tragedy all the way around," defense attorney Stacy Levy said in opening statements of the murder trial for Brenda and Catherine O'Connell. "There is not going to be a happy ending at the end of this trial."
The girls, now 17, face charges of murder, felony murder and aggravated assault in the August 2006 death of Muriel O'Connell, 57, when the girls were both 15. They are being tried as adults.
While prosecutors began the trial by showing photos of the mother smiling in a pool with both of her daughters, defense attorneys presented a grim picture of an abusive life for the girls after they left a Guatemala orphanage.
"The undisputed facts are that she's dead and they killed her," said Dawn Taylor, deputy chief assistant district attorney.
Taylor said evidence suggests the girls, both less than 5 feet tall and weighing less 100 pounds, strangled their mother in her sleep, then moved her body and placed a knife in her hands.
While the defense contends Muriel and Brenda O'Connell were fighting, when Catherine O'Connell intervened to defend her sister, Taylor said cuts and bite marks found on Catherine O'Connell the night her mother died were self-inflicted and the house was "staged" to look like a fight had occurred.
Muriel O'Connell, a professional single woman living in California at the time, adopted Catherine O'Connell when Catherine was 11. Taylor said the two lived a happy life, but Muriel O'Connell wanted a sister for Catherine, so she went to the same orphanage to adopt Brenda O'Connell, when the child was 14.
While Catherine O'Connell, also known as Katie, had assimilated and quickly learned English, Brenda O'Connell and Muriel O'Connell reportedly had trouble communicating and the teen gravitated toward Spanish-speakers in their Buford neighborhood.
"When Brenda came, it changed almost immediately," Taylor said. "It began to get worse and worse in that family. Brenda was not happy. Things got very bad in the summer of 2006."
Taylor recounted an incident where Muriel O'Connell thought the girls poisoned her drink, putting diethyl ether in her vodka bottle.
Less than two weeks before Muriel O'Connell was found dead, the teens went to a neighbor's house with packed bags, alleging abuse, but a police officer found no evidence and sent the girls home.
"There are points in this story, when the 'if only' is very big," Taylor said.
Days later, Muriel O'Connell took the girls to Summit Ridge mental hospital and left Brenda O'Connell there, until a child welfare worker said she would be charged with abandonment if she did not take the girl home, attorneys for both sides said. The week after her death, Muriel O'Connell had plans to visit a boarding school in Mexico for Brenda O'Connell.
While defense attorneys said Muriel O'Connell was physically and emotionally abusive to the girls, even pushing Catherine O'Connell to attempt suicide in January of 2006, prosecutors said Brenda O'Connell hated her mother's "whiteness, her American-ness."
Taylor said the girls wanted to be adopted by a Spanish-speaking woman in the neighborhood, but Levy said the claim was ridiculous since the woman was a single mother of two teenage boys. Besides, Levy said, both times the girls sought help - when they alleged the abuse and the night of their mother's death - the teens ran to a different neighbor's house.
She read a translated entry in Brenda O'Connell's diary from three weeks after the girl came to America. "For me, this is the living hell of my life," read the entry, which talked about "the lady" hitting the girls.
Defense attorneys said both girls had been diagnosed with battered woman's syndrome, but Taylor said a psychologist would testify that was not true.
"This is a tragedy. It's awful, but when Muriel died, they were defending themselves," Levy said.