It took a Montrose jury less than an hour on Wednesday afternoon 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 as 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 38-year-old African-American client guilty of a lesser charge of negligent child abuse, arguing that Bramble was not culpable in her girls’ deaths because she was under the sway of Madani Ceus, the powerful leader of the religious group to which Bramble previously belonged.
(Ceus also faces two charges of first degree murder in the girls’ deaths, in a case that goes to trial in January 2020.)
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.
But the jury was swayed instead by the prosecution’s evidence, presented relentlessly over the previous seven days of the trial.
This included hours of testimony from Bramble’s codefendant Alec Blair, and graphic descriptions from investigators and forensic experts of the girls’ remains, which were discovered in a car on Blair’s Norwood farm on Sept. 8, 2017. Pathologists testified that the girls had died of heat, dehydration and starvation.
Prosecutors also showed the jury lengthy videos of Bramble as she was being interviewed by a Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent shortly after turning herself in to authorities in September 2017, in which Bramble freely described the circumstances leading to her girls’ deaths, and the part she played.
In closing arguments, Deputy District Attorney Robert Whiting replayed excerpts of these videos, and told the jury that Bramble’s state of mind 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 her double-murder trial, 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 7th Judicial District Judge Keri Yoder, who is presiding over the cases of all five adults that have been charged in the deaths of the two girls, ruled while the jury was out of the courtroom 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’s daughters were sequestered to the car.
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.”
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, 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 never actually called to the stand. 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 detailed testimony about his investigation into the girls’ deaths, had few words 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 subdued as well, as they packed up their stacks of files and audiovisual equipment and prepared to leave the courtroom. Their case had reached a successful outcome. But as Deputy District Attorney Robert 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 to await her sentencing hearing, set for Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 9 a.m. in Telluride.
A baby she gave birth to shortly after turning herself in to authorities in 2017 has been adopted, Masters said, while the two daughters of codefendants Madani Ceus and Ashford 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 specially purchased 24-hour, three-camera surveillance system on a secure lot in Norwood.