Juan A Lozano
GALVESTON, Texas – Jurors wept Tuesday watching a woman describe how teaching her 2-year-old daughter proper manners turned into a daylong torture session in which the toddler was beaten with belts, dunked in cold water and flung across a room so violently that she died.
Kimberly Trenor, 20, detailed the abuse in a videotaped statement played for jurors during the first day of her capital murder trial.
Trenor, 20, told investigators in the statement that she hit her daughter with a thick leather belt to teach her to say "please" and "yes, sir."
The little victim was dubbed "Baby Grace" by investigators who worked to identify her decomposed remains after the body was found in a plastic container in October 2007 on a tiny island in Galveston Bay.
Trenor's 25-year-old husband, Royce Zeigler II, is to be tried separately on murder charges. His attorney argues that Trenor is responsible for the child's death.
But Trenor insisted it was her husband who became so enraged when the toddler didn't behave better that he hurled her several times across a room, ultimately fracturing her skull and killing her.
"I said we have to get her to a hospital. (Zeigler) said, 'No we can't. We'll go to jail,'" Trenor said in the videotape, crying. "There came a point where she stopped breathing. He started doing CPR on the floor. He took her ... and handed her over to me. I could just feel her going cold."
At the defense table, Trenor's eyes teared up as she watched the videotape on a large screen. Several jurors wiped away tears.
Riley Ann Sawyers tried to stop her mother and stepfather from beating her to death by reaching out to her mother and saying, "I love you," assistant district attorney Kayla Allen told jurors earlier in the day during her opening statement.
The toddler's pleas didn't stop her mother from brutalizing her, the prosecutor said.
Allen said that on July 25, 2007, Trenor and Zeigler disciplined Riley by whipping her with a belt, pushing her head against a pillow and holding her head under water. She said Zeigler tossed Riley across the room, fracturing her skull. An autopsy concluded the fractures caused her death.
Allen said the adults did nothing to help even as Riley lay dying.
Instead, the couple bought a plastic container, stuffed Riley's body inside and stored it in a shed for a month or two before setting it out to sea, the prosecutor said.
Defense attorney Tommy Stickler Jr. told the jury that Trenor never intended to kill her daughter and that things just "spun out of control."
Stickler portrayed Trenor as a scared 19-year-old girl who had moved to Texas from Ohio to marry a man she met while playing an online game. She said Riley's father, her former boyfriend, had assaulted her and Zeigler was her "knight in shining armor."
"I don't want to use the word accident, but this wasn't something that was intentional," Stickler said.
Trenor could receive an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted of capital murder. The jury could also convict her of a lesser charge.
Prosecutors declined to seek the death penalty because they didn't think they could prove that either one would be a future danger, as required.