(Photo by Patrisha McLean)
(Photo by Patrisha McLean)
I understand the numbing and mind fog that develops when someone you love is a master manipulator bent on control, from both my project Finding Our Voices: Breaking the Silence of Domestic Abuse and as a survivor myself.

But is domestic abuse so powerful that it can cause a woman to stand by while her own child is tortured to death over a period of weeks, if not months, or to subvert her protective instincts and actually deliver the blows herself?

To find this out I have been covering the trial of Sharon Carrillo, charged with the depraved indifference murder of her 10-year-old daughter, Marissa Kennedy, where the evidence is so disturbing that at one court recess a reporter fell sobbing into the arms of one of Sharon’s relatives.

On December 11, the fifth day of trial, in Courtroom 2 of Waldo County Superior Court in Belfast, an overhead screen projected a photo of Marissa, who would be described in testimony by a school guidance counselor as “thoughtful, kind, and loved to read — that was her happy place.”

Here she was a corpse, mostly purple from bruising, with black gaping stigmata holes on her upper feet and knees like you see in paintings of Christ, from being forced to kneel naked on a tile floor with arms raised so as not to be able to deflect the blows.

Her mother, pale, with hair cropped short for the trial, sat hunched and sobbing at the defense table with her lawyers, who occasionally stroked her back. Every once in a while, she turned her head to the spectators in a seeming search for a familiar and friendly face.

This is a mother who may or may not have participated in the beatings that led to Marissa’s death on February 25, 2018, but who was almost certainly in their Stockton Springs condo while over many weeks the fifth-grader sustained 40 to 50 distinct blunt-force injuries, three broken ribs, a torn liver, and lashings with a leather belt so severe the shape of the metal belt buckle was imprinted onto her flesh.

The state contends that Sharon was an all-in participant in the torture that led to the girl’s death by battered child syndrome. She faces a prison sentence of 25 years to life. Her boyfriend, Julio Carrillo (he never divorced his first wife so Sharon and Julio’s marriage was not legal), pleaded guilty and is serving a prison sentence of 55 years.

The only way that Sharon will be found not guilty is if the jury finds she did not participate in the deadly beatings. But Sharon, repeatedly waiving her Miranda rights, confessed her guilt with much detail to police detectives. The defense contends that Sharon was coerced into these confessions by virtue of being severely abused herself by Julio, and that Julio alone beat the child to death.

So Sharon’s only chance to avoid being locked up for perhaps decades is if jurors believe she is a domestic abuse victim, and that domestic abuse can do things to one’s mind that most people cannot fathom.

Most victims of abuse by intimate partners can name one thing that finally got them free, and the trigger I hear most is the imminence of their child being physically harmed. So it is hard to understand how a woman could stay in an abusive relationship when she is aware that the abuser is also physically harming her child.

But I understand the drip, drip, drip of isolation, constant put-downs, sadism delivered so calmly that you feel like you are the one who is crazy, infantilization that puts you and the children on the same level. I understand being in the thrall of someone who seems omnipresent and omnipotent. I understand feeling helpless and hopeless and having one’s personality hijacked.

Smart and sophisticated women succumb to this all the time, and a key feature of Sharon’s defense is her “very, very low intelligence.” (A judge on December 3 acknowledged her limited functionality, but ruled she was competent to stand trial.)

At a conference I attended in Denver two weeks ago, an expert on cults said: “When dependency is combined with a charismatic leader, the charismatic leader determines the truth. The [charismatic leader] controls people to act independently of their free will.”

The more I learn and think about intimate partner abuse the more I think that in its most severe form it is like a cult, with the abuser like a cult leader and a kind of deprogramming needed to be able to get his voice out of your head, and pull away.

I moderated a book club at the Windham women’s prison this spring. Three of the most engaged and personable participants were serving long prison sentences, along with their partners, for sexually abusing their children. I checked in with a mental health counselor there to try to get my head around this. She told me that while the male perpetrators are heinous, the women were invariably coerced by abusive partners.

Sharon is lucky that Christopher MacLean was assigned as her lawyer (Laura Shaw is cocounsel and a law student is also present) because he is my lawyer, too, and he “gets” domestic abuse. My divorce lawyer, who at our first meeting asked “Why did you stay?,” did not.

At the Carrillo murder trial, the woman sitting next to me from Stockton Springs whispered: “I can’t imagine how that little girl was invisible to so many people for so long.” Joining us on the spectator benches were a half dozen reporters, a man who played cards with Sharon at a local psychiatric and recovery center, and Sharon’s aunt who told me Sharon was brainwashed by Julio and that when Marissa was 5, she said about her mother’s impending wedding, “I am so happy I’m going to have a daddy.”

Going into the trial I was skeptical of how strong a case there was for domestic abuse.

Domestic abusers mostly present very well— that is how women are lured in and fall in love with them, and why after a domestic abuse homicide neighbors talk about how nice the killer was.

When MacLean right off established that “charming” was a word the family’s social worker Sue Weber used to describe Julio, there was a loud gasp in the courtroom. It came from me. A month before Marissa died, Weber (who was working for a subagency to the Department of Health and Human Services, because the DHHS deemed the family “low-risk” for child abuse) reported “the children are believed to be safe as Julio has taken the immediate steps to protect them.”

With intimate partner abusers, everything is the woman’s fault.

In Sharon’s first interview with police, she told lead investigator Jason Andrews that she and Marissa both “got out of control” but “cool as a cucumber” Julio “never lost his temper.” Intimate partner abuse is all about power and control and in the two hours of that interview, Sharon said “control” about 20 times.

Then there is that other classic tactic of domestic abusers: crazy-making. According to Sue Weber, Julio told her “often” about crazy things that Sharon was doing, all established by MacLean as lies.

Speaking to the police detective on the day that Marissa was found dead, Sharon painted a picture of their home life that some of Marissa’s classmates probably were lucky enough to have really experienced. “We try not to yell and scream at each other, especially in front of the kids”; “When [Marissa] is upset, [Julio] talks to her, gives her a hug, tries to calm her down.”

Videos extracted from Julio’s cellphone showed that Julio was a daddy and partner not of dreams, but of nightmares.

Christmas Day 2017, Sharon is trying to get away from Julio and his camera and growing increasingly distraught — “Stop recording me! Stop recording me! Stop recording me!” — as he hounds her. When she crawls away, he yells: “Get your butt off the floor and start being a mother! Marissa is behaving and you’re not!”

A video of him likewise terrorizing Marissa was an indication of how wife and child were victimized in similar ways. A photo showed Marissa kneeling naked on the floor with arms in the air, and in the background, Sharon, also naked and in the exact pose.

In my favorite book about domestic violence, an excuse Roddy Doyle’s fictional protagonist gives doctors for the injuries by her husband forms the title: “The Woman Who Walked into Doors.” When Detective Jason Andrews asked Sharon about the bruise blanketing Marissa’s stomach, pelvis and upper legs, her explanation was: “She will run into doors.”

Was Sharon covering up for injuries she inflicted on her daughter? Or covering up for injuries inflicted by Julio? Was it her idea or Julio’s to offer this excuse? It is difficult here to disentangle the intimate partner abuse from the child abuse.

The prosecution’s central evidence against Sharon is the full and detailed confession in her last police interview, three hours of video eerily underscored by what sounded to me like a heartbeat. “I’m not buying that,” the detective says to Sharon’s explanations for Marissa’s injuries that he sympathetically supported in the first interview.

“Karate chop on her side, hitting her face, hitting her with a belt,” Sharon ends up stating of her own role. Whose is the man’s belt found in the condo closet and now in a shopping cart of evidence in the courtroom? “My husband and I share belts,” was her improbable answer.

And “50/50 my fault and his” as her apportion of blame for Marissa’s death.

By the end of this video, I was convinced that Sharon helped to beat her daughter to death. The truth seemed to come out of her own mouth, along with such heinous add-on admissions that she had continued the beatings even after Marissa told her, “I think that I am dying.”

It seemed that it was all over, and the defense had only to pack it in.

Cross-examining Detective Andrews, MacLean pulled over the shopping cart piled high with crime-scene evidence:

“Nothing in here directly links Sharon Carrillo with her daughter, does it?”

“No.”

“The only direct evidence that Sharon Carrillo beat Marissa comes from the words out of her mouth?”

“Yes.”

MacLean asked Andrews if he and Sharon have the same educational level, and if Andrews has a learning disability. No, and No.

Then he established that in the police interviews Sharon was asked to endorse the narrative provided by Julio and that “Every single piece of information about child abuse was first provided by law enforcement.”

A parade of neighbors, co-workers and school officials who took the witness stand established conclusively, to my eyes and ears anyway, that Julio sadistically and severely abused both Marissa and Sharon.

Randy Poulin said when the family was moving in next door to him in Bangor, “The father put heavy boxes in [Marissa’s] arms. She dropped them and he smacked her in the back of the head. I wouldn’t have wanted to be hit that hard.” Upstairs neighbor Ethan Miele heard, amidst constant “crying, whimpering, skin on skin contact”: “Daddy stop! Daddy please stop!”

Another neighbor heard “A lot of [Sharon] being called ‘useless bitch’ and ‘cunt.’” I once asked an expert in the field of domestic abuse why so many abusers call their girlfriends and wives the “C” word, and she said because they know how much it hurts.

From a neighbor in Stockton Springs, where the Carrillos moved into Sharon’s parents’ condo after being evicted from their Bangor apartment: “[Sharon] was carrying her little boy and Julio kicked her from behind so her leg buckled, causing her to fall” and did the same thing when it was groceries she was carrying. Another neighbor saw Julio step on the gas while Sharon, standing outside the car, was trying to buckle their baby into the car seat. “He did it again and again. He was laughing.”

These people, and others, called the Department of Health and Human Services and police over and over again to report the child and domestic abuse, but nothing was ever done. Miele said he was told by police to basically mind his own business and was almost arrested himself for breaking and entering when he pushed open the Carrillo door to try to get Julio to finally stop.

Assistant Attorney General Leane Zainea asked the witnesses if they saw any injuries on Sharon, or if Sharon ever disclosed abuse by Julio. All answered “No” and Zainea seemed satisfied that she had made her point.

A 2019 book that got a lot of publicity is called “No Visible Bruises: What We Don’t Know About Domestic Violence Can Kill Us.” Do these prosecutors with the Maine Attorney General’s office really and still believe that visible injuries are necessary for domestic abuse to be present?

Do these lawyers representing the State of Maine really believe that a domestic abuse victim will disclose what goes on behind closed doors to people they hardly know, when this is the kind of secret commonly kept from close family members for decades?

Zainea also tried to refute the possibility that Julio was abusing Sharon by establishing that the couple kissed after a police interview, and that photos exist of them together, smiling. Empathizing with one’s abuser — called “trauma bonding” — is a well-documented effect of longtime domestic abuse.

This apparent ignorance of Domestic Violence 101 in the DA’s office and by the police detectives, who told Sharon as they settled in for the interview, “You’ve got an honest man there,” then proceeded to lay out, and ask her to concur with, Julio’s version of events, cries out for mandatory domestic violence sensitivity/awareness training for all Maine government, police and court officials who come into contact with domestic abuse victims.

Sharon’s father and stepmother, Joe and Roseann Kennedy, established the low IQ and developmental disabilities that made Sharon especially susceptible to domestic violence coercive control.

When they met him, “he sat there so polite and kind. He was so much older than her [18 years] but we thought maybe if he’s older he’ll take care of her.”

He moved Sharon and Marissa from New York to Maine, isolating her from her support system. Sharon and Marissa became increasingly hard to reach, with Julio changing his phone number every few weeks. When they asked their daughter and granddaughter questions over the phone, Julio provided the answers from the background. Sharon “lost her personality.”

The “50/50” Sharon stated about the blame for Marissa’s death? “I believe that he told her and she had no choice because her brain was gone,” Roseann said.

Roseann said that, as controlling as Julio became to Sharon and Marissa over the couple’s five-year relationship, she and her husband never imagined he was physically abusing either of them.

The defense established that Sharon made two false confessions in response to suggestions from the detectives. Then Michael O’Connell, a forensic psychologist specializing in false confession analysis, took the stand.

Dr. O’Connell noted a police recording between Sharon and Julio where “Julio is talking about how they need to stand together.” What Sharon “confessed” to detectives after this “is consistent with what [Julio] wanted her to say.”

“We know how difficult it is for ‘normal’ domestic violence victims. The impact of that on someone with a low IQ is much greater.” He said that the detectives were, perhaps unintentionally, leveraging Sharon’s fear of Julio in providing her with his narrative and continually asking her to endorse it.

Dr. O’Connell said that many common coercive interrogation techniques were used with Sharon, but “the primary source of pressure” in the room came not from the police detectives. “She is in fear of [Julio],” he said. “She is being controlled by him. He is who she is going to yield to.”

By the time court recessed for the weekend, I was convinced that much, if not all, of Sharon’s confession was false, and that she is also a victim of Julio. I cannot say with certainty that she contributed zero of the physical violence that led to the death of that beautiful little girl, and that is the crucial question for the jury, and what will determine the 34-year-old woman’s fate.