What’s Left to Learn From the Horror of the Nanny Trial?

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Photo: Susan Watts/NY Daily News via Getty Images

By the fifth week of the nanny trial, the brutality had become tedious. When a forensic pathologist displayed a close-up image of the gaping knife wound that nanny Yoselyn Ortega inflicted on herself, after killing 6-year-old Lucia Krim and 2-year-old Leo, the jury barely flinched. With a wooden ruler, forensic pathologist Dr. Jonathan Arden pointed to the wound’s jagged edge and various internal tissues it exposed. On the massive flat-screen TV that sits between the jury booth and witness stand, the wound appeared larger than Dr. Arden’s head.

But stomach-churning horror is already the norm in the murder trial of Yoselyn Ortega. The defendant already admits she stabbed to death two children; her lawyers merely argue that she was legally insane when she did it. Three weeks ago, the jury saw a crime-scene photo depicting the deceased children. Last week, the defense displayed so many photos of Ortega lying in a pool of her own blood next to a kitchen knife, that the NYPD officer asked to identify them admitted that he’d lost track of whose camera each photo had come from.

And so, when Arden finally testified about Ortega’s self-inflicted wounds on Monday, a jaded jury and half-empty courtroom barely reacted. Ortega’s first self-inflicted wounds showed hesitation, Arden said, displaying photos of wrists striped with several shallow slits. Then she drew the knife across her neck, from left to right, as would be expected from a right-handed person. Then she stabbed herself at least twice, “with a great deal of force, the equivalent of a very powerful blow or punch.” (This would seem to confirm mother Marina Krim’s account: When she pantomimed how the nanny had stabbed herself, an EMT said, she’d looked like she was punching herself in the neck.)

This is a trial where nobody disputes the shocking level of violence that took two children’s lives. Ortega’s lawyers may be mounting a “devil made me do it” defense, but even one witness for the prosecution invoked the devil when he described the look in Yoselyn Ortega’s eyes when he saw her in the bloody bathroom. When this trial started, witnesses described senseless violence. Now those attending this trial are experiencing their own form of senselessness. Over the course of this trial, as my sensitivity to graphic imagery has dulled, a growing sense of pointlessness has set in. Why are we even looking at these images? Arden was quick to note that he can testify only to what the defendant did — not her state of mind. And her state of mind is, ultimately, the only consequential variable on which the prosecution and defense disagree.

The prosecution even acknowledges that Ortega probably attempted suicide. During her opening statement, ADA Courtney Groves argued Ortega’s apparent suicide attempt was evidence that the nanny understood the consequences of her actions — caught standing by the bloody bodies, she attempted suicide to avoid the life in prison that the prosecution now seeks. During her cross-examination of Ortega’s sister Delci Ortegas-Garcia, Groves characterized a package that Yoselyn left for Delci (which contained Yoselyn’s insurance and banking information) as a “suicide note” — evidence of premeditation.

The defense’s version leaves open the possibility of premeditation — during her opening statement, Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg argued that even people who are hallucinating can sometimes make plans around their hallucinations. If Ortega is found not guilty, she will be locked in a forensic mental hospital; if she is found guilty she will be locked in a prison. Though useful for understanding what happened during the nanny’s killing spree, these gruesome images have started to seem beside the point. If an image can explain what was going through Yoselyn Ortega’s mind when she killed those children, this court has to see it — not that both sides of this case aren’t trying. The defense displayed photos of Yoselyn Ortega’s bedroom, and her Bible propped open to an image of the Virgin Mary, but until they find a way to prop open her mind and display its content, Ortega’s relative sanity remains open to debate.

What’s Left to Learn From the Horror of the Nanny Trial?