DALLAS - *Warning: Some may find the details in this story disturbing.*
The trial began Wednesday for a North Texas man accused of beating his ex-girlfriend’s daughter to death two years ago.
Charles Phifer was originally indicted for felony injury to a child. A grand jury has since added a capital murder charge.
Police and prosecutors said 4-year-old Leiliana Wright was killed in her Grand Prairie home in March 2016 after she drank her little brother’s juice box.
Leiliana was tied in a closet, beaten with a belt and bamboo stick and thrown against a wall. An autopsy also revealed she had been sexually abused, court documents state. At the time, Phifer and her mother were allegedly high on heroin.
Leiliana’s mother, Jeri Quezada, pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. As part of her plea deal, she promised to give truthful testimony during Phifer’s trial.
Quezada was wearing her jail jumpsuit and was handcuffed while giving her testimony on Wednesday. After explaining her lifestyle of heroin use with Phifer, she then explained what happened in the hours before the girl’s death.
“He offered to watch her while I went to dinner with my family,” Quezada said. “I was having a hard time with her.”
When Quezada arrived back at Phifer’s house at 9 p.m., she told the court she took another shot of heroin and then asked where Leiliana was.
“He said she was in the closet, opened the door and showed me,” she recalled. “Her hands were behind her back. Something was wrapped around her stomach to coat thing. Her face was more bruised up.”
Phifer took her down. Quezada tried to feed her a peanut butter sandwich.
“She was having a hard time eating it. Charles got frustrated, put gloves on, held her by her cheeks and poured Pedialyte in her mouth,” she recalled.
“What are you doing while he is doing this to your baby?” prosecutors asked Quezada.
“Sitting there high,” she replied. “I remember seeing him pick her up by her throat and throw her in the closet.”
Quezada said she turned on a shower for Leiliana and then heard what sounded like a fall.
Earlier jurors heard a frantic 911 call Phifer made. A paramedic became emotional while remembering trying to save the life that was already gone.
“I do remember picking up… sorry. I picked up the little girl,” the paramedic recalled. “She was limp. She was cold.”
Leiliana’s child abuse case slipped through the cracks at Child Protective Services and caused public outrage. It also sparked an investigation and changes within the agency. CPS acknowledged an overloaded system caused caseworkers to overlook a pattern of severe abuse.
Several supervisors resigned or were fired. The agency also increased the number of caseworkers and cut the average caseload for investigators by more than half -- from 32 to 15.
If convicted, Phifer is facing up to life in prison. The state is not seeking the death penalty.