‘You should die in a locked closet,’ judge
tells man convicted in savage beating
death of 4-year-old
A Grand Prairie man was convicted of capital murder in the “savage” beating death of his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter in a case the judge said was the worst he’d ever seen.
Charles Wayne Phifer, 36, received an automatic life sentence without the possibility of parole for the March 2016 murder of Leiliana Wright.
Leiliana was beaten with a bamboo switch and belts and thrown against a wall. Her mother, 33-year-old Jeri Quezada, pleaded guilty to felony injury to a child as part of a plea agreement that will lock her behind bars for 50 years.
Quezada will be formally sentenced by the judge Wednesday, and relatives will have the chance to give a victim impact statement at that time to both Quezada and Phifer.
Quezada testified against Phifer, who she said bound Leiliana’s hands behind her back and strung the little girl up in a closet.
State District Judge Robert Burns told Phifer that life behind bars was insufficient for what Leiliana suffered.
“I think this is the worst case I’ve ever seen,” Burns told Phifer.
“Hanging a little girl in a locked closet was savage. You should die in a locked closet,” the judge said.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours before delivering the guilty verdict.
Many were visibly shaken during the three days of testimony, during which they were shown photos of Leiliana’s battered body.
The little girl was covered from head to toe in bruises and had at least 30 bruises on her back from where she was whipped.
Defense attorneys John Tatum and Stephen Miller argued that Quezada is a liar who was trying to save herself by blaming Phifer for her daughter’s death.
“She set Charles up because that was the only way to get out of this,” Miller said.
Leiliana’s death exposed a staffing crisis in Child Protective Services. The girl’s paternal grandparents reported possible abuse to the state agency months before she was killed.
Quezada was a known drug user and had run-ins with child protection authorities in Texas and Illinois, where she received probation for hitting her stepson.
Quezada had five children, including Leiliana, with three different men. The surviving four children are living with relatives.
“Charles Phifer does not have any motive to hurt or do anything to this child,” Miller said. “He’s living in a house rent free with no obligations. Why would he screw that up?”
“She’s the one who keeps having kids she doesn’t want,” he said.
A medical report presented by defense attorneys shows that Leiliana had bruises on her body at least a month before her death. Defense counsel argued that the prior abuse shows Quezada was responsible for her girl’s death.
During trial, Quezada admitted that she would sometimes hit her daughter. She said she used a switch made from bamboo to strike the little girl’s legs.
Prosecutors Eren Price and Travis Wiles argued that Quezada and Phifer were responsible for Leiliana’s death but that Phifer was the one who was alone with the child for hours the day of her deadly beating.
Price disputed the defense counsel’s accusation that Quezada was simply saving herself by pinning Leiliana’s death on Phifer.
“I’m not sure the next 50 years in prison can be considered saving your own skin,” Price argued.
The prosecutor said someone needed to shed light on what happened to Leiliana, and Quezada’s story was backed up by evidence.
A strand of the girl’s hair was found embedded in the wall where Quezada said Phifer threw the girl. Leiliana’s DNA was also found on gloves used by Phifer, a DNA expert testified during the trial.
Quezada said she saw her daughter vomit in the living room and then Phifer put on gloves, grab the girl by her cheeks, lift her from the ground and pour Pedialyte down the child’s throat.
The mother also said Phifer showed her where he had tied up Leiliana in a dark, tiny closet in the living room. Leiliana’s wrists were bound behind her body and she was “strung up” so she couldn’t sit.
“There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about this story,” Wiles said during closing arguments. “The last loving arms that reached out for Leiliana Wright were the strong, loving arms of a stranger.”
During the trial, a paramedic who tried to save Leiliana cried recounting how badly bruised the little girl was.
Wiles said Quezada’s story about the 48 hours or so before Leiliana’s death is corroborated by cellphone records.
Those records showed Quezada was away with her youngest child for much of the day. She testified she went with her family to eat at an Arlington steakhouse that night. Quezada’s mother confirmed.
Leiliana stayed with Phifer.
“This man was trusted not just with her care but her life, and he took it,” Wiles argued.
Quezada returned to the Grand Prairie home after 9 p.m. She said that when she got there, her first concern was using heroin with Phifer.
She later asked about Leiliana, and that’s when she discovered her daughter was in the closet.
“In life, Leiliana Wright deserved peace. In her death, she deserves justice,” Wiles said.