DECATUR, Texas — The suspect in the killing of 7-year-old Athena Strand entered a not guilty plea in Wise County court on Monday morning.
Tanner Horner, 31, was in court for his initial arraignment in the case, which stems from the death of Strand in December.
Horner did not speak in court; his attorney entered the plea on his behalf, as is common practice.
Strand's mother, Maitlyn Gandy was in the courtroom Monday, facing the man accused of killing her daughter for the first time. Gandy's hair remained pink, her daughter's favorite color.
"Probably one of the most difficult moments of her life to see the person who killed her daughter, and it’s a moment she’s thought about for a long time," Benson Varghese, Gandy's civil attorney, said. "I suppose it’s surreal in some sense, but it was of just grave importance for her to be there."
Authorities have said Horner, a FedEx delivery driver, confessed to police that he accidentally hit Strand with his delivery van, panicked, put the little girl inside his vehicle and then strangled her to death, fearing what consequences would come.
According to an autopsy report by the Dallas County Medical Examiner, Strand had blunt-force injuries to her head and neck and evidence of smothering and strangulation. The manner of death was listed as a homicide.
Wise County Sheriff Lane Akin said prosecutors are planning to seek the death penalty against Horner.
Horner was indicted on the capital murder charge, as well as aggravated kidnapping, on Feb. 16, 2023. The 31-year-old is accused of abducting and killing Strand on Nov. 30, 2022. Strand's body was found on Dec. 2.
According to the arrest affidavit, Horner said Strand was not seriously injured when he hit her with his van, but he said he panicked just the same and put her in the van.
The affidavit also said that Horner further told investigators Strand was talking to him after she was hit, even telling him her name. Once inside the van, the affidavit said, Horner told police he tried to break Athena's neck -- and when that didn't work, he told police, he strangled her with his bare hands in the back of the van.