'I love you' meant zip to mother of murderer Feb. 25, 2004 12:00 AM The mother took the witness stand and looked over at her son, silently mouthing words so easily said: "I love you." If only she had acted like it a long time ago. Kathy Newell's son, Steven, murdered 8-year-old Elizabeth Byrd as she walked to school on May 23, 2001. It took a jury 90 minutes to decide that he was the monster who tried to rape the child, then strangled her before dumping her into an irrigation ditch. Now Newell is fighting for his life, contending that he, too, was strangled - emotionally, at least - by his lousy childhood. It's a pathetic story that every meth-head mother should hear, every woman more concerned with her boyfriends than her babies. Every mother in name only. Steven Ray Newell never met his father. Early on, he lived with his grandmother who offered the only stability the boy ever knew. Family members say his mother would disappear with boyfriends, leaving her own mother without the means to care for her two kids. "She would take her welfare check and food stamps and be gone for weeks at a time," Kathy's sister, Connie Hendrick, told jurors on Monday, as they weighed whether to sentence Newell to death. Steven was 10 when his grandmother died, leaving him and his sister, Tracy, in the loving arms of good old Mom. Who by that time had married Richard Links. From then on, life was mostly a succession of moves from one apartment to another, from one town to another, from one high to another. "I don't believe we were ever in one place for longer than six months at a time," Kathy testified. Money was always in short supply, and drugs were always the priority. The drug of choice, Kathy said, was methamphetamine. Richard said that whenever they got high, they had physical fights, often in front of the kids. They got high most every day. While Kathy Newell described herself as a good mother and son Steven as a mama's boy, her daughter Tracy said it wasn't exactly a Norman Rockwell existence. Holidays, she said, were the worst. "Food flying, presents flying, fighting. We'd try to bypass holidays, me and Steven did, because there was no point in even trying to have a holiday with our family." Steven left home for the first time when he was 11. By 13, he was snorting meth with his stepfather, who explained that he was only trying to cheer the boy up. It seems Steven was depressed. His mother was living in Las Vegas at the time and, despite several promises, had not yet returned to Phoenix. "I'd send her money to come home, and she didn't show up," Richard testified. Kathy told jurors she could no longer provide for her son by the time he was 13. He dropped out of seventh grade and drifted from the family of one friend to another. By the time he was 17, he was living with his 15-year-old girlfriend. By 19, he was into alcohol and drugs and not much else. According to court records, Steven got drunk one night in February 2000 and put a knife to a woman's throat, forcing her to drive around for 90 minutes while he raved on about how she would never go for a guy like him. After asking if he could fondle her breasts, he told the woman to drive out to the desert. Fortunately, she got away before he could rape her. Unfortunately, he got a plea deal that had him out of jail in six months. Five months later, Elizabeth Byrd was dead. On Tuesday, Steven Newell tearfully apologized and tried to explain. As if he ever could. Steven said he was trying kill himself by overdosing on crystal meth because he had nothing going in his life. Instead of killing himself, however, he killed Elizabeth. "My mother told me I couldn't amount to anything," he said. "She was right. I'm sorry." You listen to the guy, and you almost feel sorry for him. Until you remember that an 8-year-old girl is in her grave. And that Kathy Newell didn't turn her son into a monster. That was his own doing. But you wonder, as you watch her leave the stand and again mouth those empty words: "I love you." What might have been different if she had meant it?