Houston: When the body of 3-year-old Indian toddler Sherin Mathews reached the morgue, maggots had eaten her internal organs, the doctor who performed the autopsy on the toddler in 2017 has told jurors in Dallas, Texas.
The Indian-American foster father of Sherin, Wesley Mathews, in an unexpected move, pleaded guilty on Monday to injury to a child by omission, a lesser charge, at the start of what was supposed to be his capital murder trial.
On the second day of the trial on Tuesday, 39-year-old Mathews said in a testimony that he raised his voice at Sherin while he was trying to get her to drink her milk in the garage. That startled her, and she began to choke on the milk.
He initially claimed that as punishment for not drinking her milk he sent Sherin outside at 3 am 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.
Mathews and his wife Sini Mathews, both from Kerala, adopted Sherin (born as Saraswati) from an orphanage in Bihar in 2016.
Dr. Elizabeth Ventura, the forensic pathologist who performed Sherin's autopsy in October 2017, testified on Tuesday about her conclusions in the toddler's death.
Ventura said she could not determine how Sherin died as the body was too decomposed to get an official cause of death.
She told the jurors - four women and eight men - that maggots had eaten Sherin's internal organs away as her body was discovered in a trash bag in a culvert two weeks after her death.
Ventura said that due to the decomposition of the child's vital organs like the heart and lungs, she was unable to perform an internal autopsy and determine her cause of death.
Complicating the issue of determining how Sherin died was the absence of other evidence, including the clothes that Mathews washed before calling to report his daughter missing.
Sherin's body was too decomposed to determine any other medical conditions at the time of her death, she said.
She ruled the manner of Sherin's death "homicidal violence" due to the circumstances surrounding the case, Ventura told the jurors.
The pathologist also did not agree with the claim of Mathews that Sherin chocked to death on milk.
"It's not a cause of death that I have run across," said Ventura. "We have yet to have a case where a child died from drinking milk," she told the jury.
Apart from Dr Ventura, authorities testified that there were many red flags surrounding Mathews, that made them believe Sherin was murdered.
According to Suzanne Dakil of the Referral and Evaluation of At Risk Children Clinic (REACH), Sherin was deficient in Vitamin D, had scurvy, and showed signs of physical abuse.
Dakil testified the Sherin had five broken bones within eight months.
Authorities said Mathews' casual and uncaring attitude, coupled with other evidence and information, was enough for them to charge him with capital murder.
Mathews still faces life in prison and prosecutors urged the jury on Monday to choose that sentence. The jury could decide on a lighter sentence, US media reports said.
In his testimony, Mathews said fear prevented him from asking for help, even from his wife, Sini, a registered nurse. At first, he hoped Sherin would be revived if he prayed hard enough. For a second, he said, he wanted a venomous snake to jump from the culvert and bite him so he could be with the toddler again.
He said he acted alone because he was terrified that his wife or his other daughter would see Sherin lifeless and that Child Protective Services would get involved.
"I keep going over and over again back to that night and I keep asking myself why was I being driven by fear," Mathews said. "I was just completely driven by fear, and I can't imagine that level of stupidity I went to driven by fear," Mathews was quoted as saying by the Dallas Morning News.
Mathews said he then decided to try to find a place where he could protect her body, preserving her until he could give her a proper burial.
"I refused to believe that my child had completely gone from the world," Mathews testified on Tuesday.
He said he believed if he "prayed hard and strong enough" Sherin might be resurrected, like Lazarus.
Police charged Sherin's foster mother Sini with child abandonment in November 2017, after her husband told officials the couple left Sherin alone the night of her death while they went to dinner with their biological daughter.
Sini's case was dismissed in March this year after prosecutors said they could not prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. However, Sini and Wesley lost custody of their biological daughter in 2018. The daughter currently lives with her relatives in Houston.
Sherin's case had attracted international attention. The Sherin Mathews case led to demands to change laws in both the US and India. In Texas, officials planned a 'Sherin's law' to punish parents and guardians who abandon minor children. In India, the government moved to tighten adoption procedures, requiring mandatory check on adopted children. The Indian government had also revoked the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) immigration status of Wesley and Sini.