LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A young woman testifying in the murder trial of her father and his girlfriend said that she saw her dad repeatedly dropping his girlfriend's 10-year-old son on the floor and that the boy appeared to be dead when she saw him two days later.
Called to the stand in the murder trial of her father and his girlfriend, the 18-year-old woman identified in court only as "Priscilla L." told Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta -- who is hearing the non-jury trial -- that she remembered seeing the boy, Anthony Avalos, dropped "multiple times" two days before she left the Lancaster home with her sister, three of her half- siblings and her father, Kareem Ernesto Leiva.
Leiva, 37, and his girlfriend, Heather Maxine Barron, 33, are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving Anthony's June 2018 death, along with two counts of child abuse involving the boy's half-siblings, identified in court as "Destiny O." and "Rafael O."
The murder charge 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.
"How was your dad hurting him?" the prosecutor asked Leiva's daughter about Anthony.
"He dropped him," Leiva's daughter responded.
"Did it make you sad?" the prosecutor asked of what she had witnessed.
Leiva's daughter -- who cried at points during her testimony and said she had done " a lot of work to try and move past" what had happened -- testified that it was a "very uncomfortable thing to witness" because "he was hurting somebody."
She said she remembered the boy's mother "being in there at some point during that" and subsequently pouring water on Anthony's face in a manner in which she said she believed implied that the two were not done with Anthony's punishment.
When asked who "did that to Anthony," she responded, "My dad."
"And Heather was there during this stuff that you saw your dad do?" the prosecutor asked.
"Yes," she responded.
She said the boy was confined to his room when she arrived at the home for a visit and was told that he was being punished for refusing to eat his food. She said she had also seen the boy and his two half-siblings, Destiny and Rafael, getting hot sauce in their mouths as punishment on prior occasions -- something she said her dad never forced her or her sister to do.
The young woman, who is one of Leiva's eight children, said she saw Anthony unconscious and apparently dead in the living room two days later after her father directed her to pack her belongings.
"My dad just told us that we were going to go," the defendant's daughter said, noting that she and her sister were crying as her father drove them and three of her half-siblings to her aunt's home in California City. The child's mother remained at the Lancaster home with Anthony, Destiny and Rafael, the witness said.
The prosecutor noted that Leiva uttered an expletive in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom while his daughter was being questioned about what she had subsequently told Leiva's family members.
"Mr. Leiva, I have not made up my mind about anything so your actions and how you react is part of the process of trial," the judge told him after directing courtroom bailiffs to have the defendant sit down. "You wanted to get up and leave. This is your trial."
The judge reminded Leiva that "everyone needs to keep their emotions in check" and said that he would give him 10 minutes to compose himself before the trial resumed.
Leiva's daughter said her father also wanted to drive to the home of two other children to see them in case he wound up getting arrested.
She said she didn't see Anthony throwing himself on the ground, although she, Barron and Leiva each told investigators that he had.
Anthony's half-brother, Rafael, and half-sister Destiny testified last week that they had been forced to undergo punishment, including kneeling on uncooked rice, wrestling each other and watching each other be disciplined in their Lancaster home, and that they saw Leiva repeatedly dropping Anthony on a bedroom floor shortly before his death.
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, but called two witnesses in advance of the prosecution resting its case. The prosecution still has more witnesses, including social workers who are expected to testify next week.
Priscilla's mother, Daisy Nava, testified that she experienced repeated domestic violence by Leiva and called the Los Angeles County sheriff's department for the first time in January 2010 to report an argument that "turned physical." She said the two are separated but still legally married and that she hadn't sought assistance from law enforcement earlier because she felt a "lot of shame" and didn't want her family to know.
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.