MUNCIE -- When Ryan McConniel told his wife he felt she was responsible for the death of his 5-year-old daughter, she reportedly responded, "Prove it."
On Tuesday, prosecutors began an effort to do exactly that.
Testimony is under way in the Delaware Circuit Court 5 trial of Brittany McConniel, 25, charged with neglect of a dependent resulting in death, a Class A felony carrying a maximum 50-year prison term.
Authorities say Lauren McConniel died in March 2010 after her father and stepmother failed to seek medical treatment for the malnourished girl's many health ailments.
Deputy Prosecutor Eric Hoffman's at-times-emotional opening statement to jurors suggested the girl was also the target of extreme abuse from her stepmother, and perhaps others, in their family's South Ebright Street home, which Hoffman said became "a house of horror."
As expected, Ryan McConniel, 34, took the witness stand Tuesday to testify against his now-former-wife.
While most of Prosecutor Jeffrey Arnold's questions about specific allegations of abuse and neglect will come when the victim's father returns to the stand at 8:30 a.m. today, McConniel did discuss his decision to strike a deal with prosecutors, agreeing to plead guilty to a neglect charge that could send him to prison for 20 years.
"Looking back on everything now, I could have done something more to stop the abuse," McConniel said. "I believe (Brittany) is guilty. ... I just want the truth to be known. It is what it is."
Under questioning from Arnold, McConniel said his two daughters from a previous marriage were in the care of his wife for up to 14 hours daily while he worked at a local factory and attended classes at Ivy Tech.
Ryan McConniel said his family shared the Ebright Street house with Brittany McConniel's mother, stepfather and sister, but that he was generally the household's only wage-earner.
In his opening remarks Tuesday morning, Hoffman:
• Said Lauren McConniel was a "beautiful, happy, loving 5-year-old girl" when she was removed from her mother's Tennessee home and put in the care of her father and stepmother in August 2009.
Over the next seven months, she transformed into a "pale, fragile, malnourished and exhausted child" who had been "beaten, abused, tortured and neglected."
When she died in Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis, Lauren's body was "mysteriously full of salt," which was a major factor in her death, he said.
While no one has been formally charged with forcing the child to ingest the mineral, there appeared to be an over-abundance of salt in the McConniel home, Hoffman said, including a large spaghetti sauce jar full of salt.
• Told jurors that witnesses, including Ryan McConniel, would testify about extreme punishments Brittany McConniel inflicted on her stepdaughter, including forcing her to hold up cans of vegetables for extended periods of time, do jumping jacks until she collapsed from exhaustion and beating the bottoms of the girl's feet with sticks.
"The last six months of Lauren's life was a living hell," Hoffman said.
• Said several witnesses would testify that Brittany McConniel told them, falsely, that Lauren was under the care of a Winchester physician during the months her weight was plummeting and the girl's behavior was becoming increasingly disturbing and self-destructive.
• Maintained witnesses at Riley Hospital the day Lauren died saw the victim's stepmother and members of her family "laughing, joking, having a good old time" within minutes of the child's death.
By contrast, Lauren's mother, Amber Huggins, on Tuesday tearfully recalled holding her daughter in her last moments after life-support devices were shut off.
Huggins -- who lost custody of her daughters in an Arkansas court hearing at which she didn't have legal representation -- said Ryan and Brittany McConniel gave her a false address when they took Lauren from her mother's Tennessee home in August 2009.
Huggins said she repeatedly tried to track down Lauren and the McConniels over the next seven months, but didn't see her daughter again until she was near death at Riley Hospital.
"I couldn't find her," the mother testified.
When he took the witness stand, Ryan McConniel maintained Brittany McConniel was the driving force in seizing custody of Lauren from her mother.
Defense attorney Zaki Ali -- who didn't make an opening statement to jurors -- objected when Arnold asked a question that seemed to imply the defendant had been motivated by a pursuit of weekly child support payments from Huggins.
A mental health professional also testified Tuesday that Lauren's older sister described the punishment -- including foot beatings and jumping jacks -- inflicted on the victim, and said she and her sister had received "the hardest whipping a kid can ever get."
Psychologist Kenneth McCoy also said Brittany McConniel's 4-year-old son told him Lauren had died "because she got too many spankings."
Judge Thomas Cannon Jr. has said the trial could last as long as two weeks.