A Flint woman accused of starving her adopted quadriplegic daughter to death and stashing the body in a storage unit pleaded no contest Friday to involuntary manslaughter.
Lorrie Thomas' plea came four days before she was to go to trial on second-degree murder and other charges.
The body of 9-year-old Shylae Thomas was found inside a 33-gallon container in a storage unit in Vienna Township, about 65 miles northwest of Detroit, in April. Police have said the girl was starved to death.
Her body was covered in mothballs and stored for about six weeks before it was discovered.
Authorities claimed Thomas, 40, didn't provide enough liquid nutrition through a permanent feeding tube in the girl's stomach.
"There are certainly no winners in this situation," prosecutor David Leyton said in a statement. "I am only gratified in knowing that we, as a community, were able to give Shylae's life the respect it deserved in a court of law."
While a no-contest plea is not a guilty plea, it is treated the same when determining a sentence. Defense lawyer Mark Clement predicted Thomas would get 3 1/2 to seven years in prison when she returns to court Jan. 11. The maximum punishment is 15 years.
Clement said Thomas received conflicting feeding instructions and didn't intend to mistreat the child. But he said a plea deal was in her best interest.
"You'd have a jury that's going to look at horrific photographs of a child that's been paralyzed all her life," Clement told The Associated Press by phone from Flint. "We were really concerned the jury would have no context to put that in, other than their own healthy children."
Thomas was Shylae's biological aunt before she adopted her in 2003. Court records show the girl's short life was a tragic one.
Shylae nearly suffocated in her crib shortly after birth in 1999 and became a quadriplegic. In 2000, state child welfare workers stepped in when she broke a femur. Her biological mother claimed the girl fell from a sofa, but her doctor was skeptical.
"Shylae had a real rough go," Leyton said.
Dr. Allecia Wilson, who performed an autopsy, said her death was caused by a combination of neglect, malnourishment and dehydration. She weighed just 33 pounds, and bones were sticking through her skin.
Thomas also pleaded no contest Friday to child abuse, tampering with evidence, welfare fraud and moving a dead body. She was receiving a state subsidy of nearly $3,000 a month to take care of a child with special needs and cashed checks even after Shylae's death.
The Michigan Office of Children's Ombudsman investigated the case and found there was nothing the state Department of Human Services should have done to prevent the death, investigator Mike Roxberry said Thursday.
The child's body was discovered because a rookie child welfare worker investigating a complaint involving Shylae couldn't find her at home.
Thomas initially told authorities a friend was driving the child to Virginia where the family planned to relocate.