NEW PORT RICHEY — Diella Ludwig lived just two months, floating from house to house with a father who called her his "little b----" and thought holding her would only spoil her.
She died at his hands, a jury decided Wednesday, her tiny head slammed against a hard surface, her 7-pound body shaken violently as her twin sister slept nearby.
Thomas Ludwig, 26, showed no reaction when the jury's verdict was announced after only 30 minutes of deliberation. He was immediately sentenced to life in prison.
Circuit Judge Michael Andrews, a 12-year veteran of the bench, became emotional in telling Ludwig there was no sentence he could impose that would adequately punish such a heinous crime.
"At 2 months you seemed to be able to expect these children to respond to yelling, anger and to somehow be able to conform. They relied upon you for everything. That's because they had no choice," the judge said, his voice breaking.
"At 2 months they could do nothing for themselves. They cannot defend themselves. They cannot protect themselves. You chose, instead of a reasonable response which was to maybe give this child to someone else or to call DCF, you chose to murder this 2-month-old."
Ludwig had taken the stand in his own defense earlier Wednesday and denied prosecutors' version of events on Dec. 20, 2008.
That evening, they said, in the bedroom of a house where he was staying with no electricity, Diella wouldn't stop crying. A bottle wouldn't calm her, nor would a pacifier. In a fit of rage, prosecutors said, Ludwig bashed her head and body, causing fractures in her skull and severe bleeding in her brain. She died the next morning in an intensive care unit.
William Brooks, the pediatric emergency doctor who treated Diella at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, said the damage to her head looked like what happens to a baby in a car crash who is ejected and strikes a tree.
"It was a death blow," Brooks said.
Ludwig had gotten custody of his twin daughters after they were born to a mother in prison. With no job and no stable home, he was drifting between friends' houses and exhibiting an escalating pattern of abuse and desperation: cursing at Diella and her twin sister, Shyloh, handling the babies roughly and sometimes leaving them unattended.
"F------ b----," one friend remembered him calling Diella. "Shut the f--- up. If you wake up your sister, I'm going to put you in the garage."
Before Diella's death, he sent a letter to the babies' mother, Nicholle West, writing, "I don't know what to do. I don't have anyone to help me. I'm losing my mind."
Diella's death ignited a firestorm of criticism of child welfare authorities who sent the babies home with their ill-suited father. They blamed a lack of communication across jurisdictions, and this year West won a $250,000 settlement from the Department of Children and Families for its negligence in the case. More lawsuits are pending against other agencies.
West, who observed all three days of the trial, wasn't in the room for the verdict.
She said she came with hopes of getting justice for her daughter and finding out the truth.
Afterward, she cried and hugged Ludwig's current girlfriend, Jennifer Nigro. Both women said they didn't think jurors had heard all the evidence. They remain suspicious of Ludwig's roommates who were at the home when the baby was injured.
"He doesn't deserve to spend his life in prison," West said.
West, 32, was released from prison last year and has worked to regain her footing as a parent. Another daughter, McKenzie, was taken in by relatives who hoped to adopt her. But West won back custody of McKenzie, 3, and also has Shyloh, now 2.
She said both are doing well.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.