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Evangelist's lawyer blames mother for child's starvation

PENSACOLA - The lawyer for an evangelist accused of instigating the starvation death of a 4-year-old girl to exorcise evil spirits told jurors Monday that his client is being blamed for the crime of the victim's mother. Darlene Jackson, who pleaded guilty last year to third-degree murder in the death Feb. 8, 1988, of her daughter, Kimberly McZinc, will be the key prosecution witness, probably later this week, against defendant Mary Nicholson, 39, of nearby Pace.

The demons were not dreamed up by Nicholson, but were Jackson's creation in response to her guilt and shame over the child being born out of wedlock before she moved from New York City to the Florida Panhandle, said defense lawyer R. Glenn Arnold of Pensacola.

"She had inspirational dreams and received messages from God from such places as an old woman in Annett's Beauty Shop in Manhattan, N.Y., and she received messages from pennies and dimes she found on the street and on the floor of the shop and in buses and subways," Arnold said in his opening statement.

He read a passage from her diary in which Ms. Jackson wrote that if she chastized her daughter, the girl would be "my child and not a bastard."

Ms. Nicholson is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. The state last week announced it would seek life in prison rather than the death penalty if she is convicted. The trial continues today.

Rather than being a case of "the devil made me do it" the allegation is "Mary made me do it," Arnold said.

Ms. Jackson, 34, testified at her trial that Ms. Nicholson held her in a religious trance, convincing her that Kimberly was possessed by demons that could be driven out only through beatings and fasting.

She alleged that Ms. Nicholson eventually took overthe feeding and disciplining of her daughter, described by witnesses as one of the emaciated Ethiopian children the witness had seen on television.

But Arnold said videotaped testimony from Ms. Jackson's New York friends and her diary would show she began punishing and starving the child before she met the evangelist.

Seven months before the child's death, mother and daughter had moved into the mobile home shared by Hurley and Mary Nicholson and four of their children.

Ms. Jackson also had been charged with first-degree murder, but as her jury began to deliberate, she was allowed to plead guilty to the lesser offense. She was sentenced to seven years in prison and vowed to testify against the defendant, whom she met through a friend in New York.

Assistant State Attorney Kim Skievaski said in his opening comments that Ms. Nicholson had an incentive for making Ms. Jackson her disciple because she became a virtual live-in servant and gave Ms. Nicholson large sums of money and gifts.

Arnold disagreed with the portrayal of Ms. Nicholson's religious beliefs as being weird and cultlike.

She is a follower of the Rev. S.D. James, who heads a charismatic fundamentalist ministry based in Opelika, Ala. It is a non-denominational church that believes in baptism, Arnold said.

"She follows those basic principles and doctrines of religious 'cults' such as the Baptist, the Methodist, the Assembly of God, Catholic and other churches: one God and the Bible," he said.

Arnold said evidence would contradict the allegation that Ms. Nicholson held sway over Ms. Jackson. He cited the women's educational differences. Ms. Nicholson has gone only as far as the ninth grade, but Ms. Jackson has a bachelor's degree in mental health from North Carolina A&T University and a master's degree in public administration from the University of South Carolina.

He also said friends of Ms. Jackson in New York, where she worked as a computer specialist for AT&T and as a public school teacher, would testify she was strong-willed and a leader.

Ms. Jackson was so convincing that she twice persuaded state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services staffers that nothing was amiss when they investigated complaints of child neglect before Kimberly's death.

She told the investigators and Ms. Nicholson that the child had always been thin because she was born prematurely and had stomach troubles that required a soft diet.

"Mary Nicholson and her family ate greens, meat, potatoes - regular food," Arnold said. "And they're all fat and sassy."