Anthony Avalos' mother and her boyfriend convicted of murder in child abuse case
Anthony Avalos' mother and her former boyfriend were convicted of murder Tuesday in the 2018 death of the 10-year-old, whose short and tragic life exposed massive shortcomings in the county's child welfare system.
The defendants, Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva, opted to have their case heard by a judge rather than a jury. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta handed down the verdict after spending six days reviewing evidence.
The defendants were also convicted of torturing Anthony and abusing two of his siblings, and Ohta upheld a special circumstances allegation that the couple tortured the boy in the commission of a murder. Under California law, they must face a punishment of life without parole at a sentencing hearing next month.
Neither Barron nor Leiva showed any reaction as Ohta read the verdict. Some relatives and victims' rights advocates in the gallery shouted "yes!" when the judge read that Leiva was guilty of the first count. After Ohta finished reading the verdict, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami walked into the gallery and hugged several of Avalos' relatives, many of whom were crying.
“I will always remember Anthony as a loving, funny little boy who loved spending time with us, his aunts his uncles. Today, I feel relief that they will finally pay for what they did," his aunt, Maria Barron, said during a news conference following the hearing. "But we will forever have to carry this pain in our heart because nobody will ever take the pain away, of losing Anthony.”
Prosecutors alleged that Barron had abused Anthony and two of his siblings for years, but the situation turned even more dangerous, and deadly, after she began dating Leiva. An alleged gang member, Leiva would routinely beat the children with belts, prosecutors said, pour hot sauce in their mouths and make Anthony and his siblings fight one another. The losers of the impromptu brawls would then suffer corporal punishment at Leiva's hands, prosecutors alleged.
The children also were forced to kneel on exposed floors, nails or uncooked rice for long periods of time or hold a squatted position, dubbed the "Captain's Chair," until they fell over from pain. Barron had inverted the locks on several bedroom doors in her Lancaster home so the children could be trapped inside, where they had no access to food, water or a bathroom, prosecutors had alleged. If the children urinated while locked in, Leiva would shove their faces in their own waste.
In June 2018, paramedics arrived at the family's Lancaster home to find Anthony brain dead and without a pulse, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Saeed Teymouri. During his opening statement, Teymouri spoke while displaying pictures of a withered Anthony in an emergency room. He said the boy was "so malnourished and dehydrated that his veins were collapsed."
Maria Barron testified that she reported abuse allegations to the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services in 2015, one of 13 times the agency received reports about violence against Anthony from teachers, counselors, relatives or police between 2013 and 2017.
Yet, the boy remained in Leiva and Barron’s home. The agency never made an attempt to remove the children from Barron's custody and no DCFS employees have been disciplined in connection with the case.
Several DCFS employees took the stand during the five-week trial, but they failed to explain why they didn't take additional steps out of concern for Anthony's safety. One DCFS employee could be heard laughing and telling jokes while receiving a description of abuse suffered by Anthony over an emergency hotline, according to a recording played during the trial.
DCFS sent members of its media relations staff to monitor portions of the trial, but the agency has not issued any statement on the case. The failures of the child welfare agency in Anthony's death drew comparisons to a similar tragedy, the torture and murder of Gabriel Fernandez. Hatami also served as lead prosecutor in that case, and several of Fernandez's relatives attended court Tuesday in support of Anthony's loved ones.
"Nobody won in this case. I never win in any of my cases. We can’t bring Anthony back, and we still have a Department of Children and Family Services that keeps failing our children," Hatami said after court. "But I do believe that the two people most responsible for Anthony’s death have been found guilty. They are going to be held responsible for what they did. And Anthony’s voice was heard loud and clear in court.”
Barron initially told paramedics that Anthony hurt himself, but the boy's siblings both testified that Leiva repeatedly dropped the 10-year-old on his head.
In interviews with police, Leiva admitted to abusing Anthony but denied delivering the blows that killed him. Barron claimed she was a victim of domestic violence at Leiva's hands and powerless to stop him, although prosecutors presented evidence that showed the woman had been accused of abusing her children long before Leiva entered her life.
Attorneys for the defendants were not immediately available for comment.
Explaining his ruling, Ohta said testimony from Anthony's siblings and medical evidence were key to rejecting Barron and Leiva's defense. Barron's contention that her son had thrown a fit and injured himself the morning paramedics responded was scientifically impossible, Ohta said, noting that several doctors testified Anthony was in a state of dehydration so severe he may not have consumed liquids for at least five days.
“Defendant Barron waited to call 911 until Anthony was literally deceased,” Ohta said, adding that Barron had shown a "flagrant" disregard for her son's well-being.
Ohta also concluded that Barron and Leiva treated Anthony significantly worse than the other children in their care, singling him out for intense suffering.
"It is clear to this court that both defendants targeted Anthony as a scapegoat for extreme cruelty,” the judge said. “Anthony served as the chosen target to gain some level of relief from their troubles.”
Anthony's siblings, Rafael and Destiny, took the stand in one of the most brutal days of the emotional trial. Rafael, now 12, told the courtroom that Leiva took his own children and fled once he realized Barron was calling the police the day Anthony was found dead. When Barron’s attorney asked Rafael whom he blamed for Anthony’s death, Rafael simply blurted out the name “Kareem.”
After describing how Leiva repeatedly slammed Anthony on his head the day before he died, Hatami asked Destiny if the boy just lay on the carpet unable to move. She said yes.
“And what did Mommy do?” Hatami asked.
“Nothing,” Destiny, now 13, replied.
After court, Hatami and several of Anthony's relatives excoriated Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón for his decision to bar prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in the case. Gascón had also ordered prosecutors to remove the special circumstance allegation in the case, part of his broader approach to limit the use of life imprisonment, but Hatami refused.
Without the special circumstances allegation, Barron and Leiva still would have faced 25-years-to-life in prison for the murder conviction, but they would have eventually become eligible for parole. Hatami — a longtime critic of Gascón who is both suing the district attorney and expected to challenge him in the 2024 election cycle — blasted his boss for making the sweeping decision without reviewing the case or meeting with the victims' families.
"What kind of a person is that?" Hatami repeatedly asked.
Tiffiny Blacknell, director of communications for the district attorney's office, said the focus should have stayed on the victims Tuesday.
“Today should be about holding the people who harmed this helpless child accountable for their heinous actions, and we are grateful to the court for having done that. Unfortunately, it seems this tragedy is being politicized," she wrote in a statement. "These two people face a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. This guarantees that they will die in prison. That is the appropriate and also a very serious outcome. No one should pretend otherwise.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.