TEXARKANA, Ark. (KTAL/KMSS) – The stepmother of a Texarkana toddler who died after suffering what investigators described as severe abuse has pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, avoiding the possibility of facing the death penalty.

McKenna Belcher-Cawley, 28, was awaiting trial set for June on capital murder and domestic battery charges in the death of three-year-old McKinley Cawley in April 2019. Prosecutors were seeking the death penalty. due to the extreme nature of the child’s injuries.

McKinley LeAnn Belcher, 3, died on April 2, 2019 of what investigators and prosecutors described as severe abuse at the hands of her stepmother, McKenna Belcher-Cawley. (Photo via Remember McKinley/Facebook)

Miller County Chief Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Connie Mitchell said the young victim’s family was in agreement with the sentence.

“The benefit of a plea to life in prison versus a trial where a death sentence may be imposed is, with a plea, there’s closure, there’s no appeal from a plea of guilty. Had this matter gone to trial and she’d been given a death sentence or even life in prison, there would’ve been an automatic appeal and those appeals can drag on for years and years and years, and the family just does not have the closure that they need,” Mitchell said.

The child’s father, 25-year-old Everette Cawley, is charged with being an accomplice to capital murder. While Cawley is not accused of abusing the little girl himself, prosecutors say he failed to intervene as his wife delivered the beating that caused extensive external and internal injuries and took her life.

Everette Cawley ultimately brought McKinley to St. Michael’s Hospital early on the morning of April 2, 2019, where staff called police about the child, who was unresponsive with suspected injuries sustained by abuse. The little girl was rushed to the Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock for treatment, but she died that afternoon.

An autopsy found cuts and bruises to the girl’s kidney and pancreas “caused by extreme high force events” and cuts and bruises to her lungs “caused by shearing mechanisms, which would suggest the victim sustained blunt force blows/slams to a flat surface.” The medical examiner also found that the 3-year-old girl was missing hair from her scalp that appeared to have been removed by force, and a delay in seeking care for injuries that would have clearly required immediate medical attention.

McKenna Belcher-Cawley was sentenced to life in prison following her guilty plea Tuesday in Miller County circuit court to the lesser charge of first-degree murder.

“It is our opinion that this is as close to justice as we will get. It is a minor win, but it does not erase the pain. Two years have passed since her crime, two years without justice, answers, or any resolution,” read a statement posted Tuesday to a Facebook Page dedicated to McKinley’s memory and sharing updates on the case.

“The verdict today is a moment for joy, but a reminder that it does not return what was stolen. But for now at least we can change our mission to remembrance.”

Two other young children, an infant and a two-year-old brother, were removed from the home following their parents’ arrests. Investigators said evidence showed the the two-year-old boy suffered similar abuse.

Everette Cawley is expected to stand trial in August 2021 on two counts of permitting the abuse of a minor involving McKinley and her brother and one count of accomplice capital murder. If convicted, he faces five to 20 years on each of the permitting abuse charges and death or life without parole on the charge of accomplice capital murder.