By TERRI VERMEULEN KEITH
LOS ANGELES — A Lancaster woman and her boyfriend were convicted Tuesday of murdering the woman’s 10-year-old son, Anthony Avalos, who died in 2018.
Wrapping up a non-jury trial, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta found Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, guilty of first-degree murder and torture for the boy’s June 21, 2018, death.
They were also convicted of two counts of child abuse involving the boy’s half-siblings, identified in court as “Destiny O.” and “Rafael O.”
The judge also found true 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 when they are sentenced April 25.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor told the judge that the two defendants are “evil” and “monsters” who should be held accountable for her 10-year-old son’s torture and murder. Attorneys for the two defendants countered that Barron and Leiva should be acquitted.
“I do believe that you will see this was intentional murder by torture,” Hatami told the judge.
The prosecutor noted that the defendants “blamed Anthony” for his injuries by claiming that he had thrown himself on the ground and that he had starved himself.
Hatami told the judge that the prosecution believes the boy died of a combination of starvation and dehydration, blunt force trauma, chronic child abuse and torture and failure to seek medical treatment.
The deputy district attorney said it was the prosecution’s position that “both of these defendants are evil individuals,” and that they were both abusive before meeting each other.
“Together, they were deadly,” Hatami told the judge, explaining that Barron was the one who “came up with many of these torture techniques” and that she chose Leiva to act as the enforcer for the discipline used on the boy and two of his half-siblings.
“They’re bad, bad, evil people. … They’re nothing short of monsters for what they did,” Hatami said.
The prosecutor said there was a “very long list of torture that Anthony suffered at the hands of both defendants,” including being hit with belts and cords.
“It wasn’t just Leiva doing the abuse,” Hatami said. “Heather Barron participated in the torture … Heather Barron participated in the abuse.”
The prosecutor — who handled the case with colleague Saeed Teymouri — said Barron and Leiva “weren’t trying to save Anthony” but were “trying to save themselves” when Barron called 911 on June 20, 2018, after the boy was left on the floor of Barron’s home for about two days following about two weeks of abuse. Barron concealed Leiva’s involvement and coached the boy’s two half-siblings on what they should say, Hatami said.
He said the children’s prior accounts of abuse had not been believed.
“She wasn’t suffering from intimate partner violence. She was covering up,” the prosecutor said of Barron being questioned following a September 2015 call that was made to a child abuse hotline in which alleged abuse was reported.
Hatami told the judge that the prosecution believes that Barron had seven children within eight years because she “wanted them for the money” she received in government benefits.
One of Barron’s attorneys, Nancy Sperber, contended that her client is a victim of battered woman syndrome, and said Leiva had taken “full and complete responsibility for every act of violence” against Anthony.
“I would submit to the court that Ms. Barron … she didn’t have the power to prevent this. She didn’t have the power to say no,” Sperber told the judge.
She said her client was a victim of a “cycle of abuse” that began with repeated alleged abuse of Barron as a child by her stepfather.
Leiva was in charge of discipline in the house and forced the children to fight each other when they were left in his care when Barron wasn’t home, according to Sperber.
Barron’s attorney agreed with the prosecutor’s assessment that Leiva is “evil.”
She told the judge that Leiva survived his own attempt to slit his throat because he is “so evil” that the devil didn’t even want him.
“He admitted to brutalizing Anthony,” she said of his interview with Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives. “He confessed to every single act of violence and torture.”
The defense lawyer said Leiva had been left alone with the boy — who was at home while being punished — while Barron took her other children on errands, and was in another room at other times caring for her three youngest children, who had been fathered by Leiva.
“Lying is not an intent to kill,” Sperber said of Barron’s initial statements to investigators. “It is a symptom of battered woman syndrome.”
Barron’s attorney disputed the prosecution’s allegation of a well-conspired plan by the defendants, saying Barron and Leiva were “two people I don’t think have the capability to do that.”
The prosecutor countered in his rebuttal argument that they were “sophisticated enough to trick DCFS (the county’s Department of Children and Family Services) and some law enforcement for four years.”
One of Leiva’s attorneys, Dan Chambers, said in his closing argument that “this case is one of extreme, unjustified, out-of-bounds behavior,” but added that it doesn’t rise to the level of intent to kill.
He said there is “reasonable doubt” on the issues of intent to kill and what actually caused the boy’s death.
He told the judge that the intersection between the testimony of two of Anthony’s younger half-siblings and one of Leiva’s daughters — who said they saw Leiva repeatedly dropping Anthony — and the medical evidence “will show reasonable doubt on the issue of intent to kill.”
He noted that the children initially denied any knowledge of wrongdoing and said that their accounts have changed dramatically since they first spoke to the police.
“Sometimes kids are just wrong. It’s not a matter of lying,” he told the judge.
He said the medical testimony indicated that there was a “lack of external head injuries” to Anthony.
Leiva’s lawyer said it was a “bunch of crap” to suggest that the alleged abuse started with Leiva, saying that some of the ideas for punishments came directly from Barron, whose sister testified that they had been subjected to some of the same type of discipline when they were children. He noted that most of the calls made to a child abuse hotline involved Barron’s alleged conduct.
Chambers said the woman hadn’t looked at a single photo shown on large courtroom screens and “doesn’t shed a tear” or even make eye contact with her children when they testified, while his client grew emotional and “showed some semblance of humanity” when his own daughter testified.
Leiva’s attorney urged the judge to acquit his client of first-degree murder and the special circumstance allegation, along with the torture charge.
In his rebuttal argument, the prosecutor responded that the medical evidence is “100% consistent with the testimony of the children,” but said doctors who reviewed the case disagreed on whether the boy’s ultimate cause of death was dehydration and starvation or blunt force trauma.
“There is no humanity in what happened to him. There is none,” Hatami said. “So many people failed him…”
The boy’s half-siblings — who were called during the prosecution’s case — 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.
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.
In 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.