LOS ANGELES – A judge is set to hear closing arguments Thursday in the trial of a Lancaster woman and her boyfriend, who are charged with murder and torture in connection with her 10-year-old son’s death.
Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta is hearing the case of Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, as a result of a decision by both sides to waive their right to a jury trial.
Barron and Leiva are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving the June 2018 death of Anthony Avalos, along with two counts of child abuse involving the boy’s half-siblings, identified in court as “Destiny O.” and “Rafael O.”
The murder count includes the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. Over Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami’s objection, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two after the election of District Attorney George Gascón, who issued a directive that “a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case.”
Leiva and Barron now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if they are convicted as charged.
The boy’s half-siblings testified earlier this month that they had been forced to undergo punishment, including kneeling on uncooked rice, wrestling each other and watching each other be disciplined, and that they saw their mother’s boyfriend dropping Anthony repeatedly on the bedroom floor.
One of Leiva’s daughters, who is now 18, testified that she also saw her father repeatedly dropping Anthony on the floor and that the boy appeared to be dead when she saw him two days later.
During his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Saeed Teymouri told the judge that Barron and Leiva tortured and abused Anthony for two weeks before his death, while an attorney for Leiva countered that his client should be acquitted of murder.
“Anthony Avalos graduated the fourth grade on June 7th, 2018, and for two consecutive weeks he was abused and tortured every single day culminating to when the first responders found his lifeless body on June 20th,” Teymouri said.
The boy died early the next morning.
Teymouri told the judge that there had been multiple contacts with the county’s Department of Children and Family Services dating back to 2014.
“She’s been torturing her kids for a long period of time, and once defendant Leiva came into the picture it turned deadly,” he said.
The prosecutor said the boy was “already brain dead” and had been lying on the floor in the family’s townhouse “for at least a day, possibly more” when Barron called 911 to seek assistance for the boy, and that the two “concocted a story that Anthony Avalos had injured himself.”
Leiva subsequently acknowledged that he had the boy kneel on uncooked rice and admitted that he had rendered him unconscious for about five minutes just days earlier, according to the prosecutor.
Leiva’s attorney countered that the evidence would demonstrate that there is “reasonable doubt” involving the murder charge against his client. Dan Chambers said the two major issues will be “a lack of intent to kill” and the issues of “causation.”
The defense lawyer questioned the accounts of the boy’s half-siblings, whose testimony he said has changed over time.
Chambers told the judge that many of the statements by the children are “inconsistent,” saying that their initial statements “showed a lack of any actions on behalf of Mr. Leiva with respect to the treatment of Anthony” and that “Mr. Leiva’s conduct allegedly grew worse” as the children underwent further questioning.
“Those inconsistencies in the evidence will be apparent and once we demonstrate that it will show that what the children claim they say Mr. Leiva doing is inconsistent with the medical evidence,” the defense attorney said.
“This case is a case of severe abuse, but as to Mr. Leiva, it is not a murder,” the defense lawyer told the judge.
One of Barron’s attorneys, Nancy Sperber, opted not to make an opening statement. The defense has suggested during the trial that Barron was a victim of battered woman syndrome.
Barron and Leiva were charged in June 2018 with the boy’s killing and were subsequently indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury in October 2018. They remain jailed without bail.
Last October, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally approved a $32 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by the boy’s relatives — two of whom testified last week that they notified the county’s Department of Children and Family Services about the alleged abuse. The lawsuit contended that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Anthony and his siblings.
The lawsuit cited other high-profile deaths of children who were also being monitored by the DCFS — 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and 4-year-old Noah Cuatro, both of Palmdale — to allege “systemic failures” in the agency.