Gonzales found guilty of manslaughter in child death case
CHAMBERLAIN — A Gann Valley woman was found guilty on one count of first-degree manslaughter and one count of aggravated assault Friday in the death of 4-year-old Mason Naser.
Donika Gonzales, 23, stood trial this week in the Brule County courthouse for charges of second-degree murder, and two alternate counts of first-degree manslaughter, aggravated assault and felony child abuse. Naser was the child of Tyler Naser Sr., who Gonzales was living with at the time of the child’s death, and she was caring for his children.
Gonzales was found not guilty of second-degree murder, one count of first-degree manslaughter and felony child abuse. The trial lasted six days.
“I was surprised,” Assistant Attorney General Bob Mayer said of the verdict. “I thought we presented enough to reach beyond a reasonable doubt for murder.”
The first-degree manslaughter conviction carries a maximum penalty of life in prison and a $50,000 fine. The aggravated assault charge carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and a $30,000 fine.
The attorneys finished closing arguments by 1:15 p.m. Friday. The jury came to a verdict just short of three hours from beginning of deliberation.
When the verdict was read, Mason Naser’s family quietly cried while Gonzales’ family sat in shock.
Gonzales’ reaction was small, but she blinked back tears as she sat at the defendant’s table.
“The jury gave Mason the justice he needs, that he so deserves,” said Malissa Walters, the child’s aunt. “This is what I’ve been fighting for this whole time.”
Walters, the sister of Naser’s biological mother, Angelina Walters, said she is happy with the manslaughter and aggravated assault convictions, but wishes it would have been murder.
“But still, first-degree manslaughter carries the possibility of life sentence,” Malissa Walters said. “I know she’s getting what she deserves.”
During closing arguments, Assistant Attorney General Lindsey S. Quasney asked the jury for a guilty verdict on the murder charge.
“The evidence has shown you beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant abused her ‘little helper,’ Mason Naser, to death,” Quasney said.
Quasney reminded the jury that Gonzales admitted to kicking, slapping, pushing and stomping on Naser the day of his death. She said expert witnesses said CPR could not possibly have caused Naser’s extensive liver and pancreas injuries. She emphasized Naser was tragically beaten by Gonzales and showed once more the picture of the bruises all over Naser’s body in an autopsy photo.
Defense attorney Donna Bucher, in her closing arguments, asked the jury for a not guilty verdict. She acknowledged Naser’s death was tragic, but was an accident.
“Accidents simply aren’t something we will accept easily anymore,” Bucher told the jury. “But ladies and gentlemen, accidents do happen. People get hurt accidentally.”
She maintained Naser’s injuries were caused by a fall from a bunk bed onto a toy on the floor. She said the interview Gonzales gave with Agent Guy DiBenedetto, of the South Dakota Department of Criminal Investigation, was influenced by the agent’s long experience.
Bucher addressed Gonzales’ demeanor during interviews about Naser’s death, which law enforcement described as “calm.”
“All week you’ve had a chance to observe her. Quite frankly, she appears very calm,” Bucher said. “She’s a little emotional now, but is that a cultural thing? Do people show emotions to strangers in situations like this? Again, you are the judges on that.”
The defense attorneys refused comment when asked by The Daily Republic after the verdict.
Judge Bruce Anderson ordered a presentence investigation and said sentencing will be scheduled at a later date.