GALVESTON, Texas – A slain toddler tried to stop her mother and stepfather from beating her to death by reaching out to her mother and saying, "I love you," a prosecutor told jurors Tuesday. The pleas from 2-year-old Riley Ann Sawyers didn't stop her mother, Kimberly Trenor, from continuing to brutalize her, assistant district attorney Kayla Allen said in her opening statement at Trenor's murder trial.
But defense attorney Tommy Stickler Jr. told the jury that Trenor, 20, never intended to kill her daughter in 2007 and that things just "spun out of control."
The toddler 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 points the finger at Trenor.
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.
During her opening statement, Allen detailed for jurors the day that she said Riley Ann died for forgetting to say "please" and "yes, sir."
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 grabbed Riley and tossed her across the room, fracturing her skull. An autopsy concluded the skull fractures caused her death.
"To the very end, Riley said, 'I love you' to her mom. She's reaching out," Allen said. "That's her lifeline, to her mother. What does Kim do after hearing her say I love you? She starts beating her."
Allen said the adults did nothing to help even as Riley lay dying.
She said the pair 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, prosecutors said.
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, her Texas cowboy."
"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.
Riley's remains were unidentified for weeks until an Ohio woman, Sheryl Sawyers, saw an artist's sketch and told authorities she believed the girl was her granddaughter. Sawyers' son is Trenor's ex-boyfriend.