Houston Chronicle, June 25, 1998
Woman gets two life terms for fatal spanking
By Paul McKay
CONROE -- Testimony characterizing Diana Lynn Miskell as a mild-mannered woman committed to her church did not sway jurors who gave her two life sentences Thursday for beating her 8-year-old half brother to death.
Miskell, 39, of New Caney was given maximum sentencing for murder and injury to a child by the Montgomery County jury that convicted her for the Oct. 24 death of Herman Nelson. The sentences will run concurrently.
Herman was bruised over most of his body after Miskell, who admitted only to spanking the boy, gave him a series of whippings over a seven-hour period with her hands, a switch and a belt.
Testimony in Thursday's punishment hearing revealed that Miskell had abused two of Herman's three younger sisters as well.
Miskell, who according to character witnesses was an active member of Liberty Christian Fellowship Church in Cleveland for five years before Herman's death, was keeping the boy and his siblings temporarily for one of her sisters who was their legal guardian.
The witness who was instrumental in getting Miskell convicted earlier this week was her daughter, 20-year-old Christy Nelson of La Porte. She returned to the courtroom Thursday to tell jurors of the whippings she saw her mother inflict on two of Herman's siblings a few days before the boy was killed.
Nelson said her mother had whipped Roxanne Nelson, who is now 7 but was 6 at the time, on the back with a wooden back scratcher. Miskell then made the child run around a coffee table in the living room of their home in New Caney, Nelson testified. Herman was forced to run around a kitchen table before he collapsed and struck his head on the floor on the night of his death, she said.
Nelson said her mother also had whipped Opal Nelson, who is 5, on the palms of her hands until they swelled. Prosecutors showed jurors photographs of injuries to the two girls to support the testimony.
There was no testimony indicating that Herman's youngest sibling, 3-year-old Rita, was abused. The three sisters have been placed in foster care.
Miskell's sister who was the guardian, Lou Ella Burrell, said she considered Miskell a "very sweet person" whom she had trusted completely with the kids. Her testimony rankled prosecutor Mike Griffin, who asked sarcastically, "Diana Miskell would never touch a child's hair in a bad way, would she, ma'am?"
"No sir," Burrell said.
With that, Griffin presented photographs of the battered children -- including the pictures of Herman's body that even Miskell's defense lawyers have described as "nauseating" -- in front of Burrell. She turned to state District Judge James Keeshan and asked, "Do I have to look at them, judge?"
Keeshan suggested she "glance" at the pictures, which she did.
"Do these pictures change your opinion about your sister being the sweetest thing?" Griffin asked.
"I think she needs help," the sister said.
Witnesses said Miskell, who was physically and sexually abused as a child and abused by husbands in three of four marriages, had received undergone therapy with a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Witnesses testified that Miskell had greatly improved until a year ago when she stopped seeing the therapists and quit taking medication for depression.
Her minister and several members of her church testified to what appeared to have been her calm demeanor in spite of the known marital problems she was having with Edwin Miskell, a 36-year-old technician for a tool company who was present much of the time that his wife was beating Herman.
Edwin Miskell, who was lured to Keeshan's court Wednesday by prosecutors who told him they needed testimony from him, was stunned when he was called into Keeshan's chambers and arrested on charges of injury to a child. Griffin said Miskell is accused of "injury by omission" for not doing anything to help Herman.
Edwin Miskell, who filed for divorce from Diana Miskell in December, had cooperated with authorities to help them develop their case against his estranged wife, said John Choate, his lawyer. Because of that cooperation, Choate described his client's arrest as "really unfair."
Bond on the injury charge against Edwin Miskell was set at $15,000 Thursday.