Witnesses spar at sentencing hearing

Nicole D. Miller

WOODSTOCK – A psychiatrist hired by defense attorneys testified Thursday that Nicole Dawn Miller couldn’t escape a harsh past that left her desperate and socially isolated on the afternoon she hit a 20-month-old boy who later died from his injuries.

Now Miller is awaiting a sentence of up to 60 years in prison in the first-degree murder of Talon Vermillion, the son of the man with whom she was sharing an apartment at the time of the child’s death in early June 2013.

Dr. Eileen Ryan testified that a “perfect storm” had been brewing inside Miller’s head for weeks before Talon’s murder in their Woodstock apartment.

“In my opinion, it was an act of explosive rage that was not premeditated,” Ryan said under questioning by defense attorney John C. Holloran.

“It just built and built and built,” Ryan said of the pressures bearing down on Miller.

Premeditation was the central legal issue in the eight-hour sentencing hearing, which was scheduled for a second day after both sides finished calling their witnesses. Judge Dennis L. Hupp said he will hear final arguments Friday before making a decision.

Miller, 27, pleaded guilty in November to first-degree murder, but Holloran said at the time she disputed that the killing was premeditated. Miller was convicted under an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to insist she is innocent while conceding that the prosecution has enough evidence to win a conviction at trial.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley initially charged Miller with capital murder and sought the death penalty. But Wiseley reconsidered after she came to doubt whether a jury would impose the death penalty on a young woman with no previous criminal record.

Before Ryan’s testimony, Talon Vermillion’s biological mother testified about the devastating impact of his death on her.

Tiffany Mays described seeing Talon at the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville as doctors struggled to save his life. He died on June 5.

“When I walked into the hospital, nothing could prepare a mother or father for what I saw,” Mays said, adding that her son “was hurt, really hurt.”

Mays said Talon’s death continues to haunt her.

“I have dreaded this court date because I don’t know if I can ever have closure if there is such a thing,” Mays said.

Brenda Myer, the victim’s grandmother, wept through much of her testimony. She asked Hupp to impose the maximum sentence of 60 years allowable under Miller’s plea agreement with Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley.

“How can God let this happen?” Myer said of Talon’s death. “I want to forgive, but I just can’t.”

Sue Wilbur, Talon’s great-grandmother, also condemned Miller and asked Hupp “not to allow this person who has shown no shame, no remorse to ever be near another child again.”

Members of the Woodstock police department described early in the day how the investigation unfolded.

Investigator Derek Good said Miller confessed to delivering a blow that left Talon “half-lifeless” before she called police on June 3, 2013. Miller initially insisted that Talon had suffered his injuries in a fall off a toddler bed that measured 10 ¾ inches from the floor to the top of the mattress.

But she changed her story during an interrogation conducted around 3 a.m. June 4 in the Shenandoah County Jail.

Good quoted Miller’s comments contained in a report of the interrogation: “The truth is this: He was on the bed when I hit him.”

Dr. Hilda Templeton, another psychiatrist called by the defense, joined Ryan in explaining Miller’s assault on Talon as the last in a long, tragic series of events that left Miller ill-equipped for the demands she faced in caring for Talon and three other children under two years old in a cramped apartment.

Ryan testified that Miller’s childhood was filled with physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother. Miller was also plagued with 62 documented cases of run-ins with school authorities before she dropped out in the 11th grade. Ryan said Miller’s IQ tested at 81, a score that falls within the low average range.

Both psychiatrists testified that Miller was left alone to care for the children while her former fiancée worked long hours during the day.

Miller’s long history of depression deepened after she gave birth to a child of her own a few months before Talon’s murder, Templeton testified. Miller’s condition, known as post-partum depression, is a common affliction among new mothers, Templeton said.

“Women sometimes get so stressed out by their inability to cope that they sometimes do things they ordinarily would never do,” Templeton testified.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com