PHOENIX — An Arizona woman charged with murder in the 2011 disappearance of her daughter badly mistreated the 5-year-old before she eventually killed the girl and disposed of her body by hiding it in a suitcase and throwing it in the trash, a prosecutor said Wednesday as the mother's trial began.
Jerice Hunter, 41, is accused of keeping her daughter Jhessye Shockley in a bedroom closet at the family's suburban Phoenix home, depriving her of food and water, and beating her.
Authorities believe the child is no longer alive. Her remains were never found.
"The defendant threw her away like trash," prosecutor Jeannette Gallagher told jurors.
Hunter has maintained her innocence.
She reported Jhessye (pronounced Jesse) missing in October 2011. Police say the mother told them she left Jhessye with the girl's older siblings while she ran errands, and returned to the family's Glendale apartment to find the child gone.
About 100 police officers who fanned across Hunter's neighborhood knocked on doors and stopped motorists to see if they knew anything about the disappearance. An Amber alert was issued.
A 96-day search of a landfill ended without finding Jhessye's remains.
Authorities say Hunter was arrested after inconsistencies with her account were mounting and after witnesses came forward.
Hunter also came under scrutiny during the investigation for an October 2005 arrest with her then-husband on child abuse charges in California.
In that case, the mother pleaded no contest to corporal punishment and served about four years in prison before she was released on parole in May 2010. Her oldest child, then 14, told police his mother routinely beat the children.
Hunter looked squarely at jurors as the prosecutor laid out her case.
She didn't kill Jhessye and believes her daughter is alive, said Hunter's attorney, Candice Shoemaker.
"There is no body. There is no proof she is dead," said Shoemaker, who offered no alternative theory on what became of the child.
Shoemaker said two people saw Jhessye at her apartment complex within hours of the report of her being missing.
The defense attorney also told jurors to take a hard look at the upcoming testimony of Jhessye's older sister, who is now 17.
The teen didn't alleged abuse when she was first spoke to police, Shoemaker said. The sister was in charge of Jhessye when she disappeared and changed her account because of guilt, the attorney said.
While in foster care after Jhessye's disappearance, the oldest daughter was isolated from her siblings and "started to internalize those feelings," Shoemaker said.
The prosecutor said it's unknown whether Jhessye died from malnutrition, dehydration or injuries she suffered.
"The answer to that question will never be known," Gallagher said.
In the weeks before the child was reported missing, Hunter explained her daughter's 19-day absence from school by saying she had pinkeye and ringworm, Gallagher said.
The mother also provided inconsistent details to the girl's school on efforts to get her medical treatment, Gallagher said.
Authorities say Hunter instructed her other children to falsely tell police that Jhessye left the apartment while the mother went to a check-cashing business.
The older sister later revealed she witnessed her mother's abuse of Jhessye, the prosecutor said. The teen said she found the younger girl beaten up and told authorities the closet where Jhessye was held smelled like death, Gallagher said.
The prosecutor said Hunter got a neighbor to drive her to a Tempe apartment where Hunter said she was going to sell a suitcase full of clothes and shoes.
Once they arrived, Hunter told her neighbor that the buyer wasn't there and that the items for sale could be left in a trash bin, Gallagher said.
The neighbor saw Hunter put on plastic gloves before she removed a suitcase from the vehicle's trunk and dropped it in the trash, she said. Authorities believe the suitcase contained the child's remains.
The trial is expected to conclude in early May.