WATKINSVILLE, Ga. - Although both his parents punished him brutally, Jimmy told a school counselor that he liked his stepfather because sometimes he would be nice to him.
If the 12-year-old boy behaved, Norris Lazarus Walker might give Jimmy a pillow, so that he could rest his head on the floor of the locked closet where his parents held him all night, an elementary school counselor testified in Oconee County Superior Court on Wednesday.
The counselor was the first witness in a trial in which Walker and the boy's mother face assault and child cruelty charges.
"(Walker) would give him food sometimes and was the one who told (Jimmy) he could have one night free from being handcuffed," said Beth Porter, the Rocky Branch Elementary School counselor.
He's the same man who made Jimmy - not his real name - stand for hours at a time with his arms stretched out, and shot him with a pellet gun each time the boy lowered his arms, according to Assistant District Attorney Jon Forwood.
All Jimmy did to deserve punishment was to steal snacks from his younger brother, then lie about it, the prosecutor said.
"Day, after day, after day, after day," Jimmy remained locked in a closet, Forwood said. "That was his life."
The alleged abuse began when the young boys lived with their mother and stepfather in an extended-stay hotel in Athens, where they attended Alps Road Elementary School, according to Forwood.
In Oconee County, Walker and his girlfriend, Damita Devonna Peak, each are charged with 10 counts of false imprisonment; Walker is charged with 20 counts of aggravated assault and 10 counts of first-degree child cruelty, while Peak faces one additional count of each felony.
They face similar charges in Clarke County.
Their attorneys told jurors in opening statements Wednesday that the couple had no criminal intent to be cruel, but were only trying to teach Jimmy a lesson to deter him from a life of crime.
Peak, who worked as a jailer in Florida before relocating with Walker to Georgia in 2007, saw too many friends and relatives get killed, imprisoned or hooked on drugs in the slums of Miami's Liberty City neighborhood, defense attorneys said.
"The facts in this case largely are not in dispute," said Peak's attorney, John Donnelly.
"There is no crime if there is no criminal intent," he told a jury of eight men and four women.
Ryan Swingle, Walker's attorney, presented jurors a similar argument.
"The intent of Mr. Walker and Ms. Peak was to correct their son's behavior because they cared about him; they loved him," Swingle said.
He called the punishment "unconventional and strict," but said, "it was never done out of malice, cruelty or hatred."
Peak's oldest son, who remained in Miami, had been shot and jailed on an assault charge, according to Swingle, and Peak and Walker didn't want Jimmy to end up in similar circumstances.
"There was one motive and one motive only, and that was to prevent (Jimmy) to continue from going down the pathway he was on" that might lead to prison or death, Swingle said.
Jimmy attracted Porter's attention because he always seemed hungry when he began attending his new school the first week of December 2008, she said.
She found out from other teachers that Jimmy always asked for snacks and took leftovers from other students in the cafeteria.
Porter suspected neglect, and in the hallway asked Jimmy's younger brother, who was in kindergarten at Rocky Branch, what he had for dinner the night before.
The 5-year-old said he had chicken and rice, but said Jimmy didn't get anything because he was being punished for stealing snacks and lying about it, Porter said.
The younger boy told the counselor that his mother and stepfather made Jimmy sleep in a locked closet with his hands tied, Porter told jurors.
School officials called the state Department of Family and Children Services on Dec. 11, and a social worker immediately took custody of Jimmy and his brother, after hearing from the older boy and seeing his wounds from handcuffs and pellets.
Oconee County deputies arrested Walker and Peak the same day.
The trial is expected to last a week, and the victim, now 13, is slated to testify.