The court hearing Friday was to sentence 23-year-old Thomas Jerome Martin to prison for beating 3-year-old Valeeya Brazile to death.
But it turned into a public trial of Sacramento County's Child Protective Services, and Superior Court Judge Michael A. Savage found the agency guilty.
In a searing condemnation of CPS, the judge recounted repeated failures to save the little girl from months of beatings that eventually killed her and sent her mother and Martin, the mother's live-in boyfriend, off to prison.
"There is not the slightest evidence in this case that the protection or safety of Valeeya or her brother was ever a priority, or even a significant concern, for the agency or the caseworker charged with their protection," Savage said before he sentenced Martin to prison for the maximum 29 years to life.
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Valeeya, a smiling little girl who loved pancakes and was proud of the fact that she could recognize the letter "V," was killed Feb. 5, 2008, in a Fair Oaks apartment. The child had been living with Martin, her 6-year-old brother and her mother, Mia Holmes, who is now serving 12 years.
Martin denies killing Valeeya, and as the judge and three of Valeeya's relatives spoke, he sat quietly at the defense table, yawning, shaking his head and cracking his knuckles.
Savage said the jury that convicted Martin of second-degree murder was the only official body that did anything on Valeeya's behalf.
"The evidence in this case of repeated, systematic, purposeful and brutally inflicted trauma by Mr. Martin on Valeeya is mountainous and undeniable," Savage said. "There is no doubt that this defendant routinely and unmercifully battered this absolutely defenseless 3-year-old, eventually beating her with enough force to end her life.
"And, unlike many others involved in this case, the jury was not fooled, did not shrug and did not shirk their responsibility."
Ann Edwards, director of the Department of Health and Human Services that oversees CPS, said in a statement issued Friday that Valeeya's murder "is tragic and we all mourn her loss.
"Although we cannot comment on the specifics of this case due to confidentiality laws, CPS has made significant practice improvements since 2008."
Valeeya's murder was among a series of high-profile deaths involving children whose families had been known to CPS. The mounting death toll, reported in a series of Bee stories, triggered numerous outside reviews.
Lynn Frank, Edwards' predecessor in the top job, resigned in 2009 as a scathing grand jury report was about to be released.
This month, the county announced that CPS Director Laura Coulthard was resigning under unexplained circumstances.
While CPS advocates say the agency has improved, despite budget cuts, Savage said the agency was more concerned with helping the mother than protecting Valeeya and her brother.
Savage said the social worker's "personal policy" to announce all visits contributed to CPS never discovering that Martin was living in the apartment – or using it as a haven for his marijuana-dealing business.
"With that ludicrous practice in place, the worker showed the ultimate disrespect to the one person she should have been duty bound to protect: Valeeya Brazile," Savage said.
The judge noted that in 2006, when Valeeya was 2 and sitting unrestrained in her mother's car, Holmes tried to run over a boyfriend.
"That behavior was so outrageous that CPS was given the responsibility of providing 'protection' for Valeeya and her sibling," Savage said. "At least, that's what the agency title implied.
"Based on that car assault alone, rational adults might have appropriately concluded that Mia had forever forfeited her right to act as a caretaker for Valeeya or any other child, for that manner."
Instead, CPS returned the children to Holmes after only four months. The social worker assigned to the case, Alexis Hince, protected Holmes' interests over that of the children, Savage said.
"How in the world could such a thing happen while CPS watched ?" he asked.
"The case worker in this case testified, 'My job was to help her to get her children back, not to take her children away from her, so my job was to work with her in that goal so she didn't have to be worried she was going to lose her kids.'
"Heaven forbid that Mia Holmes would have had to have a moment's worry about losing her kids."
A 2009 Bee investigation found Hince was one of at least 68 individuals out of 969 CPS workers at the time with a criminal record. Savage said Hince made it clear that CPS knew of her convictions for welfare fraud – one while she worked at the agency. However, the judge said, Hince testified her convictions did not become a problem for her until they were reported in The Bee.
A CPS spokeswoman said Hince has not worked for the county since May 2009.
"It should go without saying that having criminals monitor criminals, especially when children are involved, begs for calamity," Savage said.
Martin sat impassively as the judge, a no-nonsense former prosecutor becoming known for his withering comments at sentencings, described how Martin had wasted his life serving as a baby sitter for Holmes, who was 20 years his senior.
"The defendant, 19 years old and unemployed, spent every day of his life devoted to playing video games, selling marijuana and becoming intoxicated," he said. "He completely escaped the notice of CPS, even though he lived in Mia's apartment every day for months on end."
Courtroom seats filled quickly Friday as five sheriff's detectives filed in and were seated among relatives for both Martin and Valeeya. Before the judge's calm, systematic deconstruction of CPS, Deputy District Attorney Rick Miller brought forward three of Valeeya's relatives to express their anger at Martin.
On one side of the courtroom, where Martin's grandmother and other family members were seated, rumblings of discontent began, and two of the five bailiffs present to keep the peace escorted two men out into the hallway, one of them shouting.
Olga Smith, the little girl's aunt, told Martin he was a "monster."
"I don't know what that little baby could have done to you to make you want to torture her on a daily basis," she said, "to make you want to throw her, to make you want to throw her in the air, to feel her heartbeat, punch her in the stomach, man, and on top of her little head.
"I don't know what would make you want do that. What could she have done to you?"
Eventually, Smith's emotions boiled over and she shouted profanities at Martin, something that often will result in expulsion from court.
The judge did not move to stop her, and Martin feigned boredom.
"It makes you angry," prosecutor Miller told The Bee. "Anybody who looks at this just gets angry."
The entire hearing took just over 30 minutes, and bailiffs escorted the emotional relatives out in groups.
Smith stopped one bailiff and told him, "Go hug that judge for me."
As she left the courtroom, with Martin still seated at the defense table, Smith called out one last message: