Houston nurse Abigail Young went on trial today on charges she failed to prevent the death of her 4-year-old daughter whose body was battered with 80 bruises, had a severed pancreas and a fractured skull.
There were also indications that the girl had been sexually abused.
Young, 34, faces up to life in prison if convicted on the one count of injury to a child by omission. Jury selection began today in Young's unusual case.
Her daughter, Emma Thompson, died June 27, 2009.
Young's boyfriend at the time, Lucas Coe, 28, is to be tried in September on charges of aggravated sexual assault. At the time of Emma's death, Coe was facing an unrelated child abuse charge in another county.
The prosecution of a mother for not protecting a child is rare, legal experts said.
Sandra Guerra Thompson, a criminal law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, told ABCNews.com that the prosecution of a parent, especially a mother, for causing harm to a child by omission were highly unusual.
"Most of the times when a child is harmed by a parent, the other parent is usually found to be also a victim of the abusive parent," Guerra Thompson said. "Although technically, like in this case, the mother has an obligation to protect the child and report the abuse, because of her status as a victim as well and really her psychological helplessness, prosecutors generally exercise their discretion not to charge."
Guerra Thompson called the case of Abigail Young case "eye-opening."
"The facts in this case may have indicated that the mother was not a victim herself and that she really was in a position to help her child," she said.
Colleen Barnett, the Harris County prosecutor trying the case, told the Houston Chronicle, "Emma was a precious 4-year-old girl and she deserves justice, and that's what we hope to get."
Investigators said Young did not call 911 when her daughter allegedly cracked her skull after falling off a toilet. Instead, Young carried her daughter to her car and drove her to the hospital. Coe and his own daughter, who had been at Young's house, were seen by neighbors leaving the home shortly after Young left with Emma for the hospital.
Young stopped the car shortly after she left when Emma apparently passed out in the back seat, according to pre-trial testimony. She called 911 from her car and first responders attended to the girl there. Emma was believed to be dead already.
After Emma was declared dead at a hospital, Young returned to her two-story home on Haverford Road as neighbors and police investigators assembled outside.
Julius Villareal, a neighbor, told ABCNews.com. that Young appeared unusually calm given the circumstances and that she gave neighbors contradictory versions of what had happened.
"She told one group one thing and then told another group of neighbors a totally different story," he said. "She was cool, calm and collected. She seemed kind of normal for someone who just lost a child."
Villareal said Young told neighbors that Emma had fallen off the toilet in the bathroom, cracking her skull and splitting her lip. She described in detail how the girl suffered extensive bruising from CPR attempts. Young said extensive bruising on the girl's thighs was caused when she pulled Emma from the car once the girl passed out.