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Mother in starvation case gets 70 years

By Michael Davis

mdavis@news-daily.com

After issuing a strong rebuke for allowing her infant twins to nearly starve to death, Clayton County Superior Court Judge Deborah Benefield, on Monday, sentenced a Lovejoy mother to 70 years in prison.

Tessa Zelek, 25, was found guilty Oct. 1 on eight counts, mostly related to the babies' near-starvation. Prosecutors had argued that Zelek - strung out on prescription drugs - failed to feed the children, causing their brains to shrink, and leaving them emaciated, with bed sores from prolonged neglect.

"I have to say that the pictures of these babies were right up there as the worst pictures I've ever seen in my life," Benefield said before handing down the sentence. "That's a pretty basic responsibility that a parent has to a child - to feed them. Instead, apparently what [the twins'] parents did was they fed their drug habits."

The children's father, James McCart, 25, also faces child-cruelty charges in the case and has been offered a plea deal, according to Anece Baxter White, deputy chief assistant district attorney for Clayton County. The twins' maternal grandmother, Christiann Zelek, faces charges for an alleged failure to report child abuse.

The condition of the children came to the attention of authorities on Nov. 20, 2007, after Christiann Zelek discovered her daughter and McCart unresponsive, and the twin boys severely malnourished, at the couple's mobile home in Lovejoy, according to an application for an arrest warrant sought by the Clayton County Police Department.

The boys, who were 12 months old at the time, have been placed in the custody of members of McCart's family.

"This is a very sad time that we have, and we would have never chosen this, not only for us but mostly for those two little boys that you seen come in here the other day," said James McCart's mother, Denise Spruill, who shares custody of the children with another family member. "They are the one who have lost the most and not yet aware of it. They suffered the first year of their life, and now the loss of their two parents that they'll not know. But fortunately, we do have a loving family that will stand behind them and make them feel loved and happy."

Before the sentence was handed down, Tessa Zelek took the stand and asked for leniency. Her attorney, Marc Pilgrim, asked for a sentence of 20 years.

Dressed in a white blouse, a dark jacket, with dark trousers, and shackled around the waist, Tessa Zelek thanked members of McCart's family for taking in the children.

"I know that the children are in good hands, and that they're being cared for and loved for," she said as she cried. "No matter what happens, I will always love them. I miss them terribly. I'm asking the court for mercy. I've missed my children's first steps, their first words. I'll miss their first day of school. I'll most likely miss their graduation. I just hope that the court shows mercy, and that, if it's possible and I'm allowed to, I could possibly see them graduate from college."

Benefield, before passing down the sentence, recounted some of the evidence in the case, including testimony about the boys' condition. She said she believed that, somehow, the boys kept each other alive even as they were neglected.

"They were left in the bed so long that they had bed sores. Bed sores. Infants. Because they weren't picked up. They weren't soothed. They weren't fed. There was one description of one of them having to self-soothe himself, because no one, not mom, not dad, would do it for him." she said. "One baby's head was flattened on the right, one was on the left. They were put in the bed together apparently looking at each other. And right after they got to the hospital, and there was a video, I actually saw them hold hands. I mean, it's almost like they kept each other alive because there wasn't a parent who could do it for them. So they did it for themselves. That's how they lived."

Tessa Zelek's public defender, Pilgrim, said a 20-year sentence would have been punishment enough for Zelek, and likened the 70 years handed to the 25-year-old to a "death sentence."

Twenty years "would have punished her," Pilgrim said. "That would've taken her well past middle age, and for the circumstances where the kids are alive and thriving and they're in good hands, a death sentence is unreasonable."

Tessa Zelek plans to appeal the verdict in the case, according to Pilgrim, although Pilgrim said he will not be her attorney on the appeal. "Different counsel will either be retained or appointed on the case," he said.

- Staff writer Linda Looney-Bond contributed to this article.