PHOENIX — An Arizona mother charged with murder in the 2011 disappearance of her 5-year-old daughter had beaten and neglected the child before killing her, putting her body in a suitcase and throwing it in a trash bin, a prosecutor said Monday during closing arguments.
Jerice Hunter, 41, also is suspected of keeping her daughter Jhessye Shockley in a bedroom closet at the family's suburban Phoenix home and depriving her of food and water. Prosecutors showed photos of the closet to jurors as they made their closing argument.
Hunter pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and child abuse. Her lawyers say there's no proof that Jhessye is dead after authorities sifted through 9,500 tons of garbage over 96 days without finding her remains.
Prosecutor Blaine Gadow told jurors that DNA evidence from bloodstains in the closet's carpet, combined with testimony from Hunter's teenage daughter, show that Hunter neglected and beat Jhessye until she died.
"She knew what a zombie looked like, to her that's what her sister looked like in that closet," Gadow said during closing arguments. "From that direct evidence we can infer the defendant beat Jhessye until she was broken and bleeding."
In her closing argument, Hunter's attorney, Candice Shoemaker, said that neither Jhessye's teacher nor a Child Protective Services agent who investigated the family noticed any signs of abuse. The lawyer also said none of Hunter's other children had shown any signs of abuse at the time.
Prosecutors "want this woman to be a bad mom. They want her to be so abusive that she killed her 5-year- old, but there were no signs of abuse on these other girls," Shoemaker said.
Hunter was arrested in 2005 with her then-husband on child abuse charges in California. She pleaded no contest to corporal punishment and served about four years in prison before she was released on parole in 2010. Her oldest child, then 14, told police his mother routinely beat the children.
Hunter reported Jhessye missing in October 2011. Police say the mother told them she left Jhessye with the girl's older siblings while she ran errands, and the child was gone when she returned to the family's Glendale apartment.
Prosecutors said Monday that Hunter had a friend give her a ride to a neighboring city to dump a suitcase containing Jhessye's body in a trash bin before Hunter told authorities the child was missing.
"Where is Jhessye's body? We don't know. She got away with that. Don't let her get away with murder," he said.
Shoemaker countered by citing testimony from a witness who said she saw a woman in a black Chevy Malibu grab a girl resembling Jhessye from a street on the day she went missing.
"Jerice Hunter did not kill her daughter Jhessye," Shoemaker said. "She knows that Jhessye is still out there and hopes one day they will reunite."
Authorities say Hunter was arrested after inconsistencies mounted in her account and witnesses came forward.