By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - An Arizona mother was sentenced on Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for abusing and then murdering her five-year-old daughter, whose body was never found despite a massive search.
Jerice Hunter stared straight ahead as her fate was read by Judge Rosa Mroz at the Maricopa County Superior Court. Her daughter, Jhessye Shockley, disappeared in October 2011 and is presumed dead.
The 41-year-old was convicted in April of child abuse and first-degree murder after a three-week trial in which a county jury heard how she starved and beat the child.
An older sister told the trial how the girl could hardly walk at one point, and how their mother kept the girl locked in a closet. A large blood stain was found in the closet which probably came from the girl, jurors heard.
After the child was killed, prosecutors said, Hunter stuffed her body in a suitcase and tossed it in a dumpster.
Mroz, who took into consideration Hunter's four prior felony convictions for child abuse in California, said she agreed with the jury there was "substantial" evidence that she killed the girl and then "dumped her like yesterday's trash."
During emotional scenes inside the courtroom in downtown Phoenix, Hunter's cousin Lisa Vance told the convicted killer that she hoped she would "burn in hell."
"You will forever be known as a baby-killer!" Vance shouted.
When another relative said he could forgive Hunter, she sobbed and said: "I didn't do it. ... They're lying."
In her remarks to the court before sentencing, Hunter asked for leniency and again denied killing her daughter. She later said she plans to appeal.
The defense had argued there were no eye witnesses to the crime, and no evidence the girl was even dead. Hunter did not testify during the trial.
Hunter herself initially reported the child missing, and a search organized by authorities drew national attention.
Hunter said at the time her daughter disappeared after she left the girl with her three older siblings while she ran an errand.
The woman was arrested a month later, but was then released without charge as investigators searched a landfill south of Phoenix. Their fruitless efforts there ended after 96 days, having sifted through about 9,500 tons of garbage.
Hunter was arrested again in September 2012 and charged with murdering her daughter.
(Reporting by David Schwartz; Editing by Daniel Wallis)