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Daughters testify
Teen says strangulation was an accident during fight

LAWRENCEVILLE - The adopted daughters of Muriel O'Connell portrayed her as a tyrannical, career-focused, hard-drinking and abusive parent bogged down by life's pressures during an emotional eight hours of testimony Friday.

And the apple of O'Connell's eye - her daughter Catherine O'Connell - admitted to accidentally strangling the woman during a prolonged fight on her bedroom floor, then staging evidence.

Defense attorneys called both Catherine and Brenda O'Connell to the witness stand Friday, mining them for firsthand, often tearful accounts of the alleged physical and emotional torment their mother wreaked after welcoming them to a privileged American life.

Catherine O'Connell, who was adopted from a Guatemalan orphanage first, told jurors her first years spent with her mother were pleasant times. Later, the teen said, Muriel O'Connell's moods swung from warm to violent, as her stresses - including an ailing mother, a new career in real estate and her second daughter's reluctance to speak English - piled up.

"She would slap us, push us, sometimes kick us," Catherine O'Connell testified. "I felt like I had to apologize because I didn't want to see her angry no more."

For months the teens kept the abuse quiet, opting not to call police "because I didn't want her to go to jail," Catherine O'Connell said. "I knew she didn't mean what she did. She just had a lot going on."

The summer of the murder, the teens finally called authorities from a neighbor's house after their mother allegedly snapped. Portions of the call, during which Muriel O'Connell was locked outside the house, were played Friday.

"My mom's been drinking," Catherine O'Connell told a dispatcher on tape. "We never did nothing ... she said I'm crazy,"

The girls, both 17, are charged with murder, felony murder and aggravated assault in the death of the 57-year-old Buford resident. They face life in prison if convicted.

Prosecutors say the girls carefully orchestrated their mother's August 2006 death, strangled her in her sleep and planted a knife in her hand. Defense attorneys argue the girls were defending themselves against a parent so abusive the girls' lives were in danger.

Both teens testified their mother tried to strangle Brenda O'Connell with a "white and green cloth" as all three congregated in the woman's bedroom after a fight that spanned the home.

Catherine O'Connell said when her mother pinned her sister on the floor, dropping a kitchen knife, she accosted the woman and "put my arms around her chest and neck" until she "fainted."

Afterward, the teen said she tried to revive her mom. When that failed, they fled to a neighbor's house to call 911, she said.

Catherine O'Connell admitted to staging a struggle, self-inflicting a scratch to her arm and later telling "half of the truth" in a police interrogation. She felt police wouldn't believe her about the abuse otherwise, she said.

Dan Mayfield, Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney, painted the teen as a rule-breaker who habitually lied to her mother to avoid trouble.

Later, Brenda O'Connell testified, via an interpreter, that her mother said she wanted to kill her the night of the fight. The teen claimed not to know what set her off. Afterward, the teen admitted planting the knife back in her dead mother's hand.

Defense attorney Stacy Levy summed up her position with two simple questions for her client:

"Did you ever plan to kill Muriel?" Levy asked Brenda O'Connell.

"No."

"Did you think she was going to kill you that night?"

"Si."

Testimony is expected to resume at 8:30 a.m. Monday with the state's cross-examination of Brenda O'Connell.