MERIDEN, Conn. — No one knows what happened that January night when 12-year-old Joseph Daniel Scruggs tied one end of a dark blue tie around a bar in his closet and the other end around his neck.
Daniel and his 17-year-old half-sister, Kara, had been up late, watching a movie and eating spaghetti. Their mother, Judy, a teacher's aide in Daniel's school who also worked part-time at Wal-Mart, had gone to bed early.
One of Judy Scruggs' many regrets is that she didn't check on Daniel when she heard a banging from his room that night. She didn't check on him in the morning either, assuming that he was asleep in the large closet -- his "fort" -- where he often slept.
It wasn't until she got home that afternoon that she asked Kara to get her brother.
She can still see her son, neck bent, palms blue, the life choked out of him by the tie that she gave him for Christmas.
After more than two years, Scruggs remains bewildered by the world's determination to judge her.
"What have I done," she asked, "except be a mother?"
But prosecutors say that she wasn't a good enough mother, that she reared her children in a home that was cluttered, unsanitary and unsafe. They say that is one reason Daniel, who was mercilessly tormented by bullies at school, took his own life on Jan. 2, 2002 -- the day before classes were to resume after the holidays.
Daniel himself left no note, no explanation.
In an extraordinary move, police arrested the single mother nearly four months after Daniel died. Although his death was ruled a suicide, Scruggs, then 50, was charged with risk of injury to a minor.
"They might as well have charged me with murder," she said.
But prosecutors argue that the conditions in which Daniel lived in the three-bedroom apartment, where clothes and clutter filled the rooms and a putrid smell filled the air, amounted to criminal neglect.
"This was not about Daniel's death, but about the horrific way he lived," Det. Gary Brandl said.
For months after his death, Daniel's sweet smile seemed everywhere -- radiating from newspapers and television news.
So was the story of his bullying.
Students at Washington Middle School came forward with tales of how the 63-pound seventh-grader had been a walking target, picked on almost daily. He had been shoved into desks. His things had been stolen. Once, his head had been pulled back so far that his neck nearly snapped.
Daniel wore mismatched clothes -- camouflage pants and a plaid shirt -- and often wore the same clothes for days. Sometimes, when he was jeered, he lashed back, only to be suspended for fighting. More often, he fled in tears.
Although he had an IQ of 139, Daniel sometimes babbled in baby talk. His breath smelled. He soiled himself in class. Other students nicknamed him "stinky." One teacher later told investigators that she held her nose whenever she passed him.
There were indications that Daniel had attention deficit disorder and that he was depressed.
Yet for all the signs of a child in crisis, no one intervened other than to document that Daniel was troubled -- not teachers, not the guidance counselor, not the police officer stationed at the sprawling urban school.
In fact, a damning report by the state child advocate's office would later suggest that when Daniel skipped school for weeks at a time, no one seemed to care.
It was easier not to deal with Daniel Scruggs. It was easier to look the other way.
After his death, the child advocate's office launched an investigation. Parents formed an anti-bullying organization. The Legislature passed anti-bullying laws.
There was so much guilt and so much blame -- and a question no one could answer. What drove the boy to take his life?
The school blamed Daniel, saying he was a bright child who brought his trouble on himself.
The mother blamed the school, saying it should have protected her son from bullies. She hired a lawyer last month and filed suit.
Police blamed the mother, saying living conditions in the home were "appalling and unsafe," with "piles of debris, clothing, junk and other clutter."
Brandl, the detective, said the evidence amounted to more than clutter. Daniel had used his mother's credit card to access Internet pornography. Kitchen knives were found near the boy's body. And years ago, when Daniel was a baby in Virginia, the state had briefly investigated allegations of neglect.
"This isn't about bullying," Brandl said. "This was a straightforward case of neglect."
But even he acknowledged that others should have helped Daniel.
Why, Scruggs asks, is she the one labeled a criminal?
Judy Scruggs is a small, rumpled woman with short blond hair and eyes swollen from tears. "I'm not the best housekeeper," she said. "But I loved Daniel and he loved me, and nobody can judge me on that."
But many have judged Scruggs: the media, the schools, her own family.
After Daniel's death, her 26-year-old son went public with his anger against the mother he felt had abandoned him, leaving him and his two older sisters to be reared by grandparents.