Madani Ceus

Madani Ceus (File photo)

The long-awaited trial of a Haitian woman charged with murdering two young girls in Norwood in 2017 gets underway on Wednesday morning at the Gunnison County Courthouse, after two full days of jury selection. Madani Ceus, the alleged spiritual leader of a small doomsday religious group that settled on a farm near Norwood in the summer of 2017, faces two counts of first-degree murder and fatal child abuse in the deaths of sisters Makayla Roberts, 10, and Hannah Marshal, 8.

The girls’ partially decomposed remains were discovered on the Norwood farm in early September 2017 after Ceus allegedly deemed them to be unclean and banished them to a trash-filled car without food or water, while the rest of the group spiritually prepared for a solar eclipse, which they believed would usher in the apocalypse.

The sun slid behind the moon on schedule, but the apocalypse they were expecting never happened, and the two young girls eventually perished inside the car.

Ceus’ trial was originally scheduled to take place in Montrose last spring, but was stayed at the eleventh hour after her attorneys requested that she undergo a competency hearing at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo. Having been found competent, Ceus returned to the San Miguel County Jail a few weeks later, where she has been held in custody ever since, awaiting her day in court. That day arrived Monday. 

According to Seventh Judicial District Jury Commissioner Sandra Martinez, 600 jurors from Gunnison County received summons for Ceus’ trial. After various postponements, disqualifications and excusals had been processed, 154 jurors were required to make their way through a heavy snowstorm on Monday morning this week to report for jury duty.

The pool of jurors was still so large that jury selection was held at the field house at the Gunnison County Fairgrounds, rather than at the Gunnison County Courthouse where the actual trial will take place.

Inside the field house foyer on Monday morning, there was a brief lull in the action after the jurors arrived. A hot pink flyer on the wall advertised the upcoming chicken and oyster fry fundraiser for the Gunnison High School wrestling team. A soda machine rumbled quietly in the corner. A cluster of uniformed guards chatted beside a table piled with assorted “forbidden items” they had confiscated from the potential jurors as they passed through security — lighters, pocket knives, a hot pink canister of pepper spray.

Then, at around 9:30 a.m., Ceus drifted silently out of a holding room nearby, robed in a loose white floor-length garment, her head mostly shaved, with her public defenders Patrick Crane and Shandea Sergent at her side. She crossed the foyer and entered the drafty, makeshift temporary courtroom that had been set up in the field house, where members of the jury pool saw her for the first time. The door closed behind her. Jury selection began.

Ceus’ fate now lies in the hands of the 12 individuals who were ultimately selected through the voir dire process (a preliminary examination of jurors by the judge and counsel), which wrapped up Tuesday afternoon.

Ceus is one of five defendants in the deaths of the two young sisters, with each case making its own separate way through district courtrooms in Telluride, Montrose and now Gunnison. Last spring in Telluride, Ceus’ husband Ashford Archer of Haiti was convicted of two counts of child abuse resulting in death and of helping to conceal a crime. He is currently serving a 24-year prison sentence.

The victims’ mother, Nashika Bramble, was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder after less than an hour of deliberation at an eight-day trial in Montrose July. Bramble is now serving two consecutive life sentences in the Denver Woman’s Correctional Facility, with no possibility of parole.

Attorneys for both Bramble and Archer have said they plan to appeal their clients’ sentences.

Norwood resident Frederick “Alec” Blair, who invited the religious group to stay on his property in the summer of 2017 and eventually became a part of it, pled guilty to being an accessory in the deaths of the two girls and is currently serving a capped prison sentence of 12 years in the Colorado Department of Corrections’ Trinidad Correctional Facility, in exchange for cooperating as a witness for the prosecution at the trials of his codefendants.

The case of the fifth defendant, Ika Eden of Jamaica, has been stayed indefinitely after a competency evaluation determined that she was not competent to proceed with her trial. Eden is currently being treated at the state mental hospital in Pueblo.

Three attorneys are working together as a team to prosecute all five of the defendants in the case: Chief Deputy District Attorney Seth Ryan, Deputy District Attorney Robert Whiting, who is based in Telluride, and special prosecutor Daniel Seidel from the Colorado Attorney General’s office.

After Archer’s well-publicized trial in Telluride last spring, defense attorneys requested that the trials of Ceus and Bramble be relocated from San Miguel County to larger jurisdictions, to take advantage of larger potential jury pools where people are not as familiar with the details of the case.

Both Blair and Bramble are expected to testify as a witnesses for the prosecution at Ceus’ trial. Bramble declined to testify at her own trial and sentencing hearing, so if she is indeed called to the witness stand, it may be the first time that the public hears her version of the story of what happened to her daughters.

Because the investigation into the girls’ deaths has been conducted as one single incorporated effort among multiple entities, a lot of the evidence presented at Ceus’ upcoming trial will be similar to that presented at the previous two trials of her codefendants, Whiting said last week. 

And although the specifics of this case are both heartbreaking and gruesome, the manner in which Ceus’ trial will be conducted is essentially the same as any other case.

“The defense will be making sure they are protecting the rights of their client,” Whiting said, while the prosecution “will be held to the same burdens of proof and the same rules of law as we always are.”

The trial is scheduled to last four weeks, “with a possible fifth, if defense is robust,” Whiting said. “Who knows what may happen in trial. We are just going to present our evidence.”

No matter how well the case is executed on both sides, and no matter the ultimate outcome, “Nothing is ever going to make this right,” Whiting added. “Even if we get the outcomes we want on every defendant, the circumstances are never going to change.”