LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A prosecutor told a judge Wednesday that a Lancaster woman and her boyfriend tortured and abused her 10-year-old son for two weeks before his death, while an attorney for the male defendant countered that his client should be acquitted of murder.
Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta was chosen to hear the case after both sides waived their right to a jury trial for Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, who are charged in Anthony Avalos' June 2018 death.
The two are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving Anthony's death, along with two counts of child abuse involving two of the boy's half-siblings.
The murder count includes the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. Over the objection of Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two after the 2018 election of District Attorney George Gascón, who issued a directive that "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case."
The two could now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if they are convicted as charged.
"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," Deputy District Attorney Saeed Teymouri said in his opening statement.
The boy died early the next morning.
The deputy district attorney 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," Teymouri 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."
The boy had "new and old injuries -- literally from head to toe," the deputy district attorney said, showing a photo of the boy while he was alive and then in a video from the hospital in which some of his injuries were depicted.
The prosecutor played an audio recording of an interview with Barron, in which she told investigators, "I promise I did not hurt my son. I did not let nobody hurt my son ... I swear he was just acting up and he threw himself because he didn't want to eat."
She told investigators that the boy said he might be gay and that she responded that she would love him no matter what because he was her "baby."
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.
One of Leiva's attorneys, Dan Chambers, countered that the evidence would demonstrate that there is "reasonable doubt" involving the murder charge against his client.
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.
Barron's attorneys reserved their right to make an opening statement when the defense begins its portion of the case.
Barron's sister-in-law, Maria Barron, testified that Anthony came to live with her and her husband on two occasions -- first in 2014 and again in 2015 -- and that she had offered to keep him and three of his half-siblings.
"She told me no. She needed her benefits," the prosecution's first witness said, noting later that "every time she had a baby it was going up."
Anthony's aunt testified that Barron didn't allow her or her husband to see the children after they reported that the children had told them that they were being abused.
She said she didn't see Anthony again until June 20, 2018, when she was told he was at UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, saying that she pleaded with Barron to let her stay at the hospital.
She said that Anthony was "covered from head to toes in bruises" and that "he didn't look like Anthony."
"His beautiful smile was gone. All that was left were bruises," his aunt said.
Maria Barron said that the boy's mother said that "Anthony had thrown himself backwards and hit his head," and that she had "also stated he was playing basketball and fell and hit his head."
The boy's paternal grandmother, Concepcion Ramirez, testified through a Spanish interpreter that Anthony told her during a visit to her home in 2016 that he didn't want to go back home because his mother's boyfriend had hit him, and that they had burned him with cigarettes, didn't feed him and kept him in a dark room.
Ramirez said she saw a burn mark that appeared to be from a cigarette when the boy lifted up his shirt.
"He hugged me and said, `Don't take me home, please," the woman testified.
She said that she told her daughter to tell him in English to tell his teacher what was happening and that she wasn't ever allowed to see Anthony again.
The woman's daughter, Maricruz Avalos, grew emotional when asked to identify photos of the boy.
She testified that she believes she last saw him in 2017 and that she heard about the alleged abuse while she was driving the boy home with her mother in the car. She said she knew Barron wouldn't let them see the boy again if they reported what the boy had told them, while noting that she didn't see any injuries.
The trial is expected to last about five weeks, with additional family members expected to be called to the stand Thursday.
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, who alleged that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Anthony and his siblings.
The other remaining defendant in the lawsuit, Pasadena-based Hathaway- Sycamores Child and Family Services, settled its portion of the case for an undisclosed amount.
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.