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Man Goes on Trial in Son's Fire Death

Duane West is accused of trapping his 4-year-old in a burning bed to get out of paying child support. Defense says he suffered a breakdown.

November 26, 2002|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

The last memory Jaquetta "Nicole" Taylor has of her son was his father blocking the 4-year-old's escape from a burning bed, she testified Monday.

"He sat straight up and started screaming, 'Mommy! Mommy!' " the 33-year-old recalled in a shaky, soft voice in Los Angeles County Superior Court as a murder trial opened for Duane West.

Prosecutors alleged that West killed his son Marquise to avoid child-support payments. His defense attorney told jurors in the downtown courthouse that West's action was the result of an emotional breakdown.

For the most part, Taylor looked calm. But when the prosecutor asked her to recall Marquise's last day of life, she held a tissue to her mouth and wept.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Lance Ito asked if she wanted a break.

"Please," she whispered.

Taylor darted out of the courtroom, tears streaming down her face.

West, 30, is charged with murder, attempted murder, torture, arson, child abuse and burglary in the July 9, 2001, attack in Granada Hills in which he allegedly beat Taylor and set her hair on fire with nail polish remover and a match.

Marquise Diantae McDonald died from burns the next day. If convicted, West faces life in prison without parole.

The mother told jurors that she tried to escape her two-story townhouse and get help when West charged after Marquise. The boy had been sleeping in his mother's bed, which caught fire.

Taylor said that she was able to roll down the stairs and run out the front door, where she fell to the ground. West followed her and stomped on her chest.

"I was just laying there, saying 'Help me, help me,' " Taylor said.

She spotted a passerby and yelled: "My baby's upstairs burning. Please go get my baby."

In his opening statement, Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Mitchell said the passerby went upstairs and, when he tried to pull Marquise to safety, the boy's skin became loose in his hands.

At times, the trial "will be very difficult to listen to," Mitchell told jurors as he held up the boy's photo. " ... [Marquise] deserves his day in court."

Mitchell contended that West's acts had been intentional and deliberate. He said West had admitted to holding Marquise down to stop him from leaving the blazing bedroom.

"The murder of Marquise was carried out for financial gain," Mitchell said.

Defense attorney Ilona Peltyn said West had been emotionally distraught in the weeks before his son's death.

"Duane West was unraveling," said Peltyn, emphasizing that for the first few years of Marquise's life, West had not known he was the father.

Taylor testified that she originally thought Marquise was the son of another man, which is why she gave Marquise the last name McDonald. But as her son grew, she said she noticed that his eyes, nose and "everything else" looked just like West, whom she had met years earlier at a Pop Warner football game in the San Fernando Valley.

The two never married and had sex only once, Taylor said, but they maintained a friendship. West asked to keep a photo of Marquise and helped her select Christmas gifts for the boy, Taylor said.

They danced around the paternity issue until, one day, it came up.

"You know Marquise is your son, and I know Marquise is your son," Taylor recalled saying to West. "What are we going to do about it?"

Taylor asked for child support. West paid her $150 a month in May and June of 2001. Taylor wanted more, while West wanted to give less, if anything, Taylor testified.

"We were both angry," she said.

In early July, West's defense attorney said, her client perceived Taylor's persistent calls for child support as a threat. West feared losing his house, car, wife and children.

"He would lose his life," Peltyn told jurors. "He would have nothing. He would be nothing."

In court, West slouched in his chair. He wore a light shirt with trousers and occasionally fidgeted when Taylor spoke, but otherwise showed little emotion.

The trial resumes Tuesday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

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