TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A jury on Wednesday began deliberating the fate of an Arizona couple charged with abusing three daughters who authorities say were malnourished and trapped inside a Tucson house for months on end.
The jury got the case at about 2:15 p.m. after lawyers delivered closing arguments and sparred over evidence in the trial, including an assertion by the defense that the girls exaggerated claims of abuse.
Prosecutor J. Alan Goodwin said there was plenty of evidence to show the girls were held against their will by Fernando and Sophia Richter and forced to follow bizarre rules such as swaying in place from 2 a.m. until sunrise.
"The girls existed in their room knowing full well that their mother and their stepfather could and would do to them anything they wanted to," Goodwin said. "So they existed knowing that whatever punishment, whatever abuse, whatever neglect their mother and stepfather wanted to inflict on them was something they were just going to have to endure — something that they were just going to have to survive."
The nearly three-week trial has been marked by dramatic testimony from the girls, who said they were beaten if they disobeyed their parents' strict rules. They said they were confined to their rooms and rarely allowed bathroom breaks, forcing them to use their closets instead.
Defense attorney Paul Skitzki, who represents Fernando Richter, said there was no evidence to prove the allegations and that the girls have embellished their stories over time. The lawyer for Sophia Richter sought to put the blame on the husband and said the younger girls' testimony implicated him — and not the mother.
Skitzki said the Richters never told the girls they couldn't leave their rooms or the house, and that Fernando Richter never assaulted the girls with a knife as one of the girls said he did.
"Certainly things were not ideal in this home, but it seems that the girls, based on time passing and everything that came out of this case, seem to have embellished various parts of what was going on in their lives," Skitzki said. "We know that during that time period the girls were never beaten or whooped for leaving those bedrooms without permission. They were never told that they had to stay in those rooms. They were never punished for leaving those rooms."
The girls were 12, 13 and 17 when the two younger girls escaped in November 2013 after an encounter with their stepdad. The oldest was kept in a separate bedroom and was removed from the home by police that night.
The Associated Press does not generally name minors who authorities say are victims of crimes.
The Richters each face three counts of kidnapping and child abuse. Fernando Richter also faces two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Sophia Richter took the witness stand on Tuesday, denying the accusations against her.
She said the girls ate well, with diets that included lots of fruit, and they were allowed to leave their rooms. She said she never physically abused the girls.
"They had fruit daily, they had snacks daily. They were never without. I always had fruit for them," Sophia Richter said.
Her husband did not testify.
The girls testified that they were forced to wake up at 2 a.m. to do marching-like exercises for hours. One said she wasn't allowed to get off her bed or brush her teeth for lengthy stretches.
The oldest sister described plastic water jugs the girls were given as moldy and the meals they were fed twice a day as rancid.
"It was nasty. Gagging nasty," she testified. "We would have to lick our plates if we wanted them clean, and if not my mom would just throw more food on it if I didn't lick it."
Police say the abuse began in a house in Catalina in nearby Pinal County, where the Richters face separate criminal charges. They pleaded not guilty in both cases.