Woman gets 50-year sentence for child’s murder

Nicole D. Miller

WOODSTOCK – Judge Dennis L. Hupp on Friday sentenced Nicole Dawn Miller to 50 years in prison for the first-degree murder of a 20-month-old boy she was caring for in a local apartment.

Hupp said Miller was “for all intents and purposes” the mother of Talon Vermillion at the time she beat him to death.

“The blows were many in number and one or more of them caused serious and extensive internal injuries that led, perhaps mercifully in the end, to his death,” Hupp said at the conclusion of a sentencing hearing that lasted 1 1/2 days.

Miller, 27, showed no emotion as she was led out of the courtroom. She will serve her sentence at the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, located east of Charlottesville. Hupp declared her ineligible for parole and subject to three years probation if she outlives her sentence.

Miller was living with three or four other children, including Talon Vermillion, at the time of his death. She called Woodstock police to her residence at 135 Valley Vista Drive on June 3, 2013 to report an injury to Talon, who was the son of Jeremy Vermillion, her fiancée at the time.

The boy was taken to Shenandoah Memorial Hospital and then to the University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville, where he was pronounced dead two days later. An autopsy report declared that he died of blunt force trauma to the head, neck and trunk.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Amanda Wiseley asked Hupp to sentence Miller to 60 years in prison, the maximum allowable under a plea agreement reached with Miller’s defense attorneys, John C. Holloran and William Eldridge IV. Wiseley initially charged Miller with capital murder and sought the death penalty but later decided a jury was unlikely to vote for Miller’s execution.

Holloran asked Hupp to impose a 30-year-sentence, the minimum allowed under the plea agreement.

In his closing argument, Holloran cited testimony from two psychiatrists and a string of text messages obtained from Miller’s cell phone to show that she was cracking under the strain of taking care of three toddlers, including Talon Vermillion, in her small apartment in the days leading up to the murder.

Halloran said a list of physical abuse and mental disorders dating back to childhood, the absence of emotional support or assistance in caring for the children and untreated post-partum depression caused by a recent childbirth, compounded Miller’s miseries and led her to snap.

“She blew a circuit,” Holloran said, adding, “Perhaps it’s not right for a male to stand up here and argue for a woman who’s taking care of three tots.”

Wiseley cited 20 bruises on one side of Talon’s head and 12 on the other as evidence of what she described as brutal, repetitive beatings that preceded his death.

Wiseley mocked Holloran for commenting that she was relying excessively on photos of the child’s numerous injuries for her evidence.

“I’m sorry if the number of photos offends counsel,” Wiseley said, referring to Holloran. “I’m offended by how many bruises there are in the shots.”

Hupp said he agreed with Holloran that Miller’s many personal burdens were a mitigating factor in the murder.

But he added: “I do not believe that Ms. Miller’s upbringing or mental health issues adequately explain the nature of this attack, and they certainly don’t excuse it. It seems to me, that if her depression and frustrations had reached such a depth, she would not have been able to function as well as she did, maintaining a clean and orderly apartment and meeting the physical needs of three small children.

“If her depression and frustrations had reached such a depth, it would have been more understandable, in my view, for her to lash out indiscriminately rather than targeting just one child.”

Judge Dennis L. Hupp’s sentencing decision

“Let me start with what this case is not. It does not present a situation where the caretaker of a young child lashes out viciously in frustration and strikes a single blow with disastrous consequences. This involves a brutal, vicious and sustained attack on a 20-month-old child. Ms. Miller did indeed have a difficult childhood and suffers from several mental health issues, which, I believe contributed to her lack of coping skills and her limited understanding of child development. The defendant’s experts were informative and helpful in these regards. Ms. Miller’s belief that her 20-month-old child should follow instructions beyond perhaps the simplest of commands and her belief that Talon’s natural mother could turn him against her or that Talon was being deliberately spiteful to her make it abundantly clear that she did not understand this child’s stage of development. I understand her feeling of being trapped, having responsibility to care for three small children in fairly small quarters each and every day with little relief or support. I can also understand that her depression intensified this feeling. So, the defendant has certainly presented evidence of mitigation, and I am giving that due consideration. It is hard to look at this young woman, with her life before her, facing the prospect of spending most, if not all of it, in prison. This is not a pleasant task for me, but justice must be done.

Ms. Miller has entered an Alford plea, maintaining that, while the Commonwealth’s evidence may support a finding of premeditation, she did not actually premeditate this killing. She has acknowledged that she did indeed inflict the injury that caused Talon’s death. She has plead guilty to and has been convicted of first-degree murder which, in this case, is the willful, deliberate and premeditated killing of another. There is certainly evidence to support this conviction, that is, there is evidence establishing each element of the crime of first-degree murder. I must also note that the facts in this case would also support a conviction of capital murder in that the defendant was over the age of 21 years at the time of the offense, and the victim was a child under the age of 14 years. Upon conviction of capital murder, there are two possible sentences, death or life in prison. The death penalty has been removed from consideration in this case; however, the plea agreement permits me to impose a sentence that would effectively be a life sentence. I must say that I have, at times, thought that a sentence of life in prison may be a harsher punishment than the death penalty.

I return to where I began. The number and location of injuries to this child, and the severity of some of them, clearly reflect a brutal, vicious and sustained beating. This child suffered injuries from head to toe, and there is fairly clear evidence, in my view, that a weapon of some nature was used in inflicting the bruise at the base of his neck and on the lower back. While the medical examiner has opined that the injuries occurred “concurrently,” it is my belief that they were inflicted over a sustained period of time even though it may have been all in one day. It is my further belief that this defenseless and vulnerable child suffered greatly during this beating or beatings at the hands of the person who, for all intents and purposes at the time, was his mother, someone whom he should have been able to trust implicitly. The blows were many in number and one or more of them caused serious and extensive injuries that led, perhaps mercifully in the end, to his death. The autopsy states the cause of death to be blunt force trauma to the head, neck and trunk. I do not believe that Ms. Miller’s upbringing or mental health issues adequately explain the nature of this attack, and they certainly don’t excuse it. It seems to me that, if the depression and frustrations had reached such a depth, she would not have been able to function as well as she did, maintaining a clean and orderly apartment and meeting the physical needs of three small children. If her depression and frustrations had reached such a depth, it would have been more understandable, in my view, for her to lash out indiscriminately rather than targeting just one child. While Ms. Miller voiced her frustration over Talon’s behavior, she also clearly noted he was not her child and that the children born to her had primacy. In the video tape of the defendant after the child was rushed to the hospital, I saw no frustration or angst on her part. Despite several inquiries about Talon, she largely exhibited a callous indifference to the conditions of the child while she calmly fabricated a story as to the means of injury.

The defendant argues that I should treat this as a second-degree murder case, and I understand that argument. To do so, however, would ignore the legal posture of the case. Ms. Miller has been convicted of first degree murder. I think the more appropriate analogy is to that of capital murder as I have stated earlier.

A departure from the voluntary sentencing guidelines is in order here for the reasons I have just stated. In view of the evidence offered in mitigation to which I give some weight but not to the extent sought by the defense counsel, I will not sentence the defendant at the high end of the range provided in the plea agreement; however, I believe that severe punishment is called for on the facts of this case. I have already noted that the plea agreement allows me to do justice in this case, and I believe justice demands a sentence that is effectively a life sentence.

Accordingly, I sentence the defendant to 50 years in the state penitentiary. She is not eligible for parole on this sentence. Further, pursuant to §Virginia Code 19.2-295.2, I impose an additional sentence of three years that I now suspend, and the defendant will be subject to a three-year period of post-release supervision under terms and conditions set by the Parole Board when, and if, she is released from prison. She is remanded to the custody of the Sheriff.”

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