Like many girls her age, 8-year-old Gizzell Ford kept a diary. The cover was striped with rainbows, and she used a pink marker to record her thoughts.
For the first few entries, Gizzell — known to friends as “Gizzy” — wrote about typical third-grade things: jumping rope, school teachers, clothes and friends.
But her life in Chicago seemed to derail in the summer of 2013, as she began detailing abuse she allegedly suffered at the hands of her grandmother.
“I know if I be good and do everything I’m told I won’t have to do punishments,” Gizzell wrote. She described how she had been forced to squat for hours and told to stand in one place for “an hour or two.”
She wrote that she looked forward to the start of school again in August, when she would be out of the house.
“I am going to be a beautiful smart and good young lady,” she wrote one day. “I can do anything I put my smart mind to. People say I’m smart and courageous and beautiful.”
“I hope that I don’t mess up today because I really want to be able to just sit down, watch T.V., talk and play with everybody,” Gizzell wrote in that same entry. “I am going to be great all day.”
Later, she added a postscript. “Not true,” she wrote. “I failed.”
On July 11, 2013, she wrote her last entry: “I hate this life because now I’m in super big trouble.”
Gizzell was dead the following day, and her body was found soon after. Authorities say she was discovered in her grandmother’s trash-filled apartment, where she’d lived with her father for several months.
She had been strangled and badly beaten.
Horrifying Accusations of Abuse
After Gizzell died, police arrested Gizzell’s father and grandmother. In court documents obtained by PEOPLE, investigators allege that her father directed the attacks, while her grandmother carried them out.
The grandmother, 55-year-old Helen Ford, is now on trial for murder. The father, Andre Ford, died in 2014 of a rare skin disease that caused him to have a heart attack.
In court on Wednesday, the prosecution introduced Gizzell’s diaries as well as other disturbing evidence against Helen. Prosecutors played cellphone video that allegedly showed her berating the terrified girl for breaking house rules. Gizzell stood silently, a sock stuffed in her mouth.
Prosecutors said that in the course of her abuse, Gizzell had been tied to a bed for several days. They also alleged that she was denied food and water and punished when she tried to sneak a sip of water from a toilet.
“They’re the most haunting images any of us will see until the end of our days,” Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney Ashley Romito said of the evidence, in her opening at the trial.
“[Gizzell] had a terrific smile, beautiful, full hair and wonderful penmanship,” Romito said. “What Helen Ford did to her reduced that child to something completely unrecognizable.”
The testimony took its toll on witnesses: A veteran Chicago police forensic investigator broke down on the stand when she was shown photos of Gizzell’s body, describing the injuries as some of the worst she has seen in her 30 years on the force.
“I’m sorry,” said Officer Nancy DeCook as she wiped away tears. “This never happens.”
Gizzell’s 10-year-old half brother also took the stand, testifying about abuse that he, too, had allegedly received at the hands of his grandmother. Speaking softly, the boy told the judge that Helen would beat him with a belt. He said that she forced him to do squats as a punishment.
The boy testified that he had seen his grandmother use a spatula to hit Gizzell in the mouth. He also said that she would force the girl to eat hot peppers or stand in contorting positions for hours on end.
If Gizzell cried out in pain, the boy said, Ford would stick a sock in her granddaughter’s mouth.
As he described his little sister, the boy burst into tears. “She was very nice,” he said on the stand. “She liked to make friends. She liked to play.”
Helen, weeping, decided on Wednesday not to testify.
Defense: Self-Inflicted Wounds?
Helen’s public defender, Judie Smith, acknowledged the tragedy of the case in her opening statements. But she characterized the defendant as “overworked, overwhelmed and overcome” with the daily responsibilities of taking care of a bedridden son and three grandchildren.
Smith also alleged that many of Gizzell’s injuries were self-inflicted.
“She was a tragically troubled young lady,” Smith said. “She coped by inuring herself.”
The case is a non-jury trial which began Monday. A judge could render a verdict as early as Thursday afternoon.