Nashika Bramble

Nashika Bramble was found guilty of two counts of murder by a Montrose jury. (Photo courtesy of the San Miguel Sheriff’s Office.)

It took a Montrose jury less than an hour to find Nashika Bramble guilty of first-degree murder for the deaths of her two daughters on a Norwood farm in 2017.

Bramble stood to receive the verdict on Wednesday afternoon, July 17, as 7th Judicial District Judge Keri Yoder read it out loud: “On count one, we find the defendant Nashika Bramble guilty of murder in the first degree of Makayla Roberts. On count number two, we the jury find the defendant Nashika Bramble guilty of murder in the first degree of Hannah Marshall.”

Bramble’s defense attorney Harvey Palefsky had urged the predominantly white, male jury to find his client, who is African-American, guilty of a lesser charge of negligent child abuse resulting in death. He argued that Bramble, 38, was not culpable of murder because she was under the sway of a powerful religious leader when she allowed her 8- and 10- year old daughters to be banished to a car and deprived of food or water.

The last day of Bramble’s trial had gotten underway on Wednesday morning with testimony from Dr. Janja Lalich, a researcher, author and educator specializing in cults and extremist groups, who was brought in as the sole witness for the defense. Lalich described how cult leaders manipulate and control their followers and break parental bonds, and elaborated on the concept of bounded choice, in which cult members make seemingly irrational decisions within a context that makes perfect sense to them at the time.

But the jury was swayed instead by the prosecution’s case, which had unfolded relentlessly over the previous six days of the trial.

This included hours of testimony from Bramble’s codefendant Alec Blair, who invited the religious group to stay on his Norwood property in the summer of 2017 and eventually became part of it, and graphic descriptions from investigators and forensic experts of the girls’ mummified remains, discovered in a trash-filled car on Blair’s property on Sept. 8, 2017.

Pathologists testified that the girls had likely died of heat, dehydration and starvation, weeks before their bodies were found.

Prosecutors also showed the jury videos of Bramble, in an advanced state of pregnancy, as she was being interviewed by a Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent shortly after fleeing the Norwood property and turning herself in to authorities in September 2017. In these videos, Bramble freely described the circumstances that had led to her daughters’ deaths.

She told CBI agent John Zamora how she had fallen in with a spiritual community led by Madani Ceus and Ceus’s husband Ashford Archer, and traveled around the country with them, bringing her young daughters along for the ride; how they eventually settled on Blair’s land near Norwood in the summer of 2017 and began to spiritually prepare for the total solar eclipse of 2017, and an ensuing apocalypse Ceus predicted would take place; how the group’s fear of Ceus prevented them from disobeying her, even as she declared Makayla and Hannah to be an “abomination” and banished them to a trash-filled car with no food and water, where everyone knew they would eventually die; how Archer and Blair later covered up the car with a tarp to hide the girls’ bodies and cover up the smell of putrefaction; how Ceus later banished Bramble to another vehicle on the property to suffer the same fate as her daughters; and how Bramble finally fled the property, unimpeded by Ceus, and made her way to Grand Junction, where she turned herself in.

In closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney Robert Whiting replayed some of the most damning excerpts of these videos, and told the jury that Bramble’s state of mind at the time of her daughters’ deaths was not relevant to her culpability in the case.

In spite of the beliefs that compelled Bramble to allow Ceus to banish the girls to the car without food and water, Bramble still knew that death was a certain outcome for them, Whiting said. “And when she faced the same fate, she saved herself.”

Bramble’s court-appointed attorneys had hoped to apply a duress defense, in which a person is exempted from criminal liability because they were held against their free will by threat of force or actual force and violence.

But Judge Yoder, who is presiding over the cases of all five adults that have been charged in the deaths of the two girls, ruled on Wednesday while the jury was in recess that this would be "a gross deviation of what the duress defense is for.”

“While there may have been an esoteric or existential religious threat, there was no sign Bramble or her children were threatened with an actual threat,” Yoder said. She also pointed to witness testimony throughout the trial that “many people left the group” or resisted becoming part of it, before Bramble and the others made their way to Norwood.

Not only were there “many opportunities to escape,” Yoder contended, “but in fact Bramble did escape. She left within a day of herself being cut off from food and water. She simply left, and that was that. There were running vehicles on the property and one of them was hers. They were only about a mile from the town of Norwood. She could have easily gone there,” to seek help for her daughters, Yoder pointed out.

Deprived of a duress defense strategy, defense attorney Palefsky did his best to shift the blame for the girls’ deaths away from his client and onto Ceus.

“I would urge you to consider what this case is really about is the illusion of free will,” he told the jury in his closing statements. "There was one person on Alec Blair’s property who had free will, and that was this evil, vile witch by the name of Madani Ceus. Everyone bowed down to Madani Ceus,” he said. “She claimed to be God” and said she had “an army of reapers at her disposal.”

“We may be sitting here in this courtroom thinking this is ridiculous, and crazy,” Palefsky said. “But cult leaders are masters of manipulation. They know who to target.”

The jury members didn’t buy it.

Bramble received their unanimous guilty verdict silently, hugged her defense team’s paralegal, and was quickly ushered out the door by armed guards, closing this most recent chapter of a complicated saga that continues to wind its way through the courtrooms, communities and collective consciousness of Montrose and San Miguel counties.

San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters was among those who gathered in Courtroom 2B in the Montrose County Justice Center late Wednesday afternoon for the conclusion of the trial. He had been subpoenaed as a witness for Bramble’s trial, but was never called in to testify. After hearing the verdict, he reiterated statements he had made when Bramble’s codefendant Ashford Archer was sentenced a month ago in Telluride.

“Our justice system is working,” he said. “We had a very attentive jury. A spirited defense. A really excellent prosecution team. A really well-done investigation from everyone involved at the CBI, and the San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, and the Coroner’s Office. Everybody did their jobs.”

San Miguel County Sheriff's Office Investigator Dan Covault, who delivered hours of excruciating testimony about his investigation into the girls’ deaths, had few words to offer at the trial’s conclusion.

“Investigating this case has been one of the toughest experiences of my life, and it’s not very easy to talk about,” he said.

The prosecutors were equally subdued, as they packed up their stacks of files and audiovisual equipment and prepared to leave the courtroom. Their case had reached the outcome they sought. But as Whiting put it, “No verdict will change what a tragedy this was.”

Bramble has been held at the Montrose County Jail throughout her trial but will now return to the jail in Gunnison County where she was previously held, to await her sentencing hearing, set for Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 9 a.m. in Telluride.

The baby she gave birth to shortly after turning herself in to authorities in 2017 has been adopted, Masters said, while the two daughters of Ceus and Archer, who survived the ordeal on the Norwood farm, are now being cared for by foster parents.

Hannah and Makayla’s remains, nothing more than bones now, are still being held as evidence. And according to Covault’s testimony, the car they died in remains under a tarp and under watch by a specially purchased 24-hour, three-camera surveillance system on a secure lot in Norwood.

What’s next:

Nashika Bramble’s sentencing hearing is set for Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 9 a.m. in Telluride.

Madani Ceus’s four-week trial is set to begin on Jan. 13, 2020. The location of her trial has not yet been determined. Like Bramble, she faces two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Makayla Roberts, 10, and Hannah Marshall, 8.