In an unexpected turn, the Indian-American father, accused of killing his 3-year-old adopted daughter Sherin Mathews and dumping her body in a culvert in suburban Dallas, has pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, media reports said Tuesday.
Wesley Mathews, 39, pleaded guilty to injury to a child by omission even before his capital murder trial opened at a Dallas district court on Monday.
Mathews had been charged with capital murder of a person under the age of 10 in the death of his special needs daughter in October 2017.
Mathews and his wife Sini Mathews, both from Kerala, adopted Sherin (born as Saraswati) from an orphanage in Bihar in 2016.
If convicted, Mathews faced life in prison without the possibility of parole. Now, with the charge of first-degree injury to a child by omission, Mathews could get probation or face prison and life with the possibility of parole after serving 30 years, nbcdfw.com reported.
It was unclear if prosecutors were aware of Mathews’ plans to plead guilty to the felony charge of injury to a child, reports said.
A jury of four women and eight men will decide Mathews’ fate.
Mathews’ attorney told jurors during opening statements that the defendant will admit to lies and mistakes he made during the time his adopted daughter Sherin went missing and was found dead two weeks later.
It was not clear if this guilty plea removes the additional charges of capital murder and tampering with a corpse, the report said. But entering the guilty plea immediately moved Mathews’ trial into the punishment phase on Monday.
If he had been found guilty of capital murder, Mathews would have faced an automatic life sentence without parole for the minor Indian girl’s tragic death in October 2017, an incident that attracted much international attention.
Sini, registered nurse, was initially charged with child endangerment but prosecutors later dropped the charges citing a lack of evidence. Sini, who was present in the court on Monday, could be called to testify in the case, the reports said.
The night of Sherin’s death, the family left her home alone to go out to dinner. It was on October 7, 2017 when Sherin was reported missing by Mathews.
He initially claimed that as punishment for not drinking her milk he sent Sherin outside at 3 a.m. to stand by a tree outside the backyard of their home in Richardson, Texas. When he checked in on her 15 minutes later, Mathews said Sherin was missing.
Two weeks later, when Sherin’s body was found in a nearby culvert by a cadaver dog, Mathews changed his story, claiming he “physically assisted” his adopted daughter in drinking the milk and that the toddler choked and after coughing for a while her breathing slowed.
During a custody hearing for the Mathews’ biological daughter, a child abuse specialist testified that Sherin’s body showed signs of abuse and that she had a series of broken bones and injuries, in various stages of healing, that could not have happened prior to her adoption.
During Monday’s hearing, lead prosecutor Jason Fine told jurors that the defendant knew exactly where Sherin was.
Fine said that Mathews’ character and his actions following Sherin’s disappearance will persuade the jury that it is “left with only one just verdict” — life in prison.
Rafael De La Garza, Mathews’ attorney, asked the jury for leniency in his client’s punishment. He noted that Mathews does not have a prior criminal history and argued that he is not a threat to the public, Dallas Morning Post quoted the attorney as saying.
He said Mathews is remorseful and is expected to testify to provide an honest description of what transpired the night Sherin died.
In court on Monday, the state played never-before-seen body camera footage of officers interacting with Mathews when they first arrived to investigate her disappearance.
In the video, one could see Mathews describing to officers what Sherin was wearing and also where he last saw her, WFAA TV station reported.
A special agent with the FBI also testified and said that he examined Mathews’ iPhone and found that he stopped sharing his location with his wife Sini after Sherin reportedly was left outside.
A K9 handler also testified and held back tears as she explained finding Sherin in the culvert, 15 days after she went missing.
The Indian-American couple gave up parental rights to their biological child in January 2018. The girl was removed from the family’s home by child welfare officials after Sherin went missing.
She remained in foster care for weeks before she was sent to live with Sini Mathews’ relatives in the Houston area.
Sherin’s death attracted the attention of the Indian government and the then External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj took keen interest in the case and also instructed the Indian mission in Houston to make sure that the Indian toddler received justice. India further tightened the adoption process after Sherin’s tragic death.