LANCASTER – A Lancaster woman and her boyfriend who were convicted of torturing and murdering the woman’s 10-year-old son were sentenced Tuesday, April 25, to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, were convicted in a non-jury trial March 7 of first-degree murder and torture for the June 21, 2018, death of Anthony Avalos. Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta, who found the couple guilty, handed down the life-without-parole sentences for the pair Tuesday morning after hearing emotional statements from Anthony’s relatives and friends — many of whom referred to the defendants as “monsters.”
“Anthony was a helpless child who was dependent (on the defendants) … for his basic physical needs and emotional support. Instead, Anthony was tortured and killed,” Ohta said as he meticulously walked through his sentencing decision. Neither Barron nor Leiva spoke during the hearing, but attorneys for the two told the judge the defendants plan to appeal their convictions.
The judge said in his March 7 verdict that the couple “worked together to deprive Anthony access to liquids for a substantial length of time, causing severe dehydration,” and that the “condition of Anthony’s body, which shows multiple bruises, cuts, possible burn marks all over his body show the extreme torture caused by the combined treatment of Anthony by both defendants manifesting an intent to kill by each defendant.”
Ohta rejected the defendants’ claims that Anthony had been injured after throwing himself to the ground and said that their statements were intended to “deceive authorities” about what had actually happened to the boy.
“Defendant Barron waited to call 911 until Anthony was literally deceased on the afternoon of June 20, 2018. This flagrant lack of care for Anthony’s life all points to intent to kill by both defendant Barron and defendant Leiva,” the judge said in his March 7 ruling, adding that subsequent statements by Barron and Leiva were part of a coordinated effort to cover up their liability for the boy’s death.
The judge also found true the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture of Anthony. The two were also convicted of two counts of child abuse involving the boy’s half-siblings, identified in court as “Destiny O.” and “Rafael O,” although the judge rejected an enhancement of great bodily injury against Leiva involving Rafael.
The judge said testimony during the trial from Anthony’s two half-siblings and one of Leiva’s daughters — who said they witnessed Leiva repeatedly dropping Anthony on the bedroom floor — showed that Barron and Leiva “worked together to abuse Anthony.” He said Anthony died from severe dehydration and blunt force trauma to the head, saying then that “the evidence supports the conclusion both defendants hurt Anthony for pleasure” and that Anthony was “helpless to protect himself against the wrath of defendants Barron and Leiva.”
The two half-siblings — who were called during the prosecution’s case — testified in February that they had been forced to undergo punishment, including kneeling on uncooked rice, wrestling each other and watching each other be disciplined. Anthony’s half-sister, Destiny, broke down in tears Tuesday when asked to speak first at the sentencing hearing and then spoke briefly before she was overcome again with emotion.
“Kareem, you came into our life and ruined everything,” she wrote in her statement — the remainder of which was read in court by Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami. “She did not protect us and took part in the torture. To me, you’re both monsters.” Destiny wrote that she wishes it would have been her who died instead of her brother.
Barron’s sister, Crystal Diuguid, questioned how her sister could “hurt her children” and watch Leiva hurt her children, and said the system that was in place to protect the children had failed them. “These two are monsters and monsters belong in cages,” she told the judge about her sister and Leiva.
“What these people did to these children is unspeakable,” Barron’s brother, David, told the judge. “You need to make sure these people never walk the streets again. … Please don’t let these monsters out ever.”
During the trial, Barron’s two siblings testified that they had repeatedly notified the county Department of Children and Family Services about the alleged abuse of Anthony and three of his half-siblings. Barron refused to allow them to see the children after she regained custody of them, they said.
Anthony’s father, Victor Avalos, told the judge that he loved his son very much and still does. He testified during the trial that he split from Barron when Anthony was about 6 or 7 months old and that he only saw him on video chats after moving to Mexico to find a job.
The judge heard from more than a dozen family members Tuesday, and all said they are still mourning the loss of Anthony. An emergency medical technician who treated Anthony the day he died said she has never stopped thinking about him. David Pine, a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who was the first to arrive at the home following a 911 call by Barron, wrote in a statement that he cannot forget an emotionless Barron saying she hadn’t done anything to her son.
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.”
Hatami — who objected to the decision and has announced plans to run for the job as the county’s top prosecutor — told reporters he had refused to comply with an order by Gascón to remove the special circumstance allegation, which would have resulted in a 25-year-to-life sentence in which the two defendants could have eventually been eligible for parole.
After the verdict in March, David Barron said his nephew will “never get the justice that he actually deserved because of Gascón,” saying that the death penalty would have been the closest thing. Hatami noted that the defendants “blamed Anthony” for his injuries, and said 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.
“It wasn’t just Leiva doing the abuse,” Hatami said. “Heather Barron participated in the torture … Heather Barron participated in the abuse.”
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.
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, who agreed with the prosecutor’s assessment that Leiva is “evil.”
One of Leiva’s attorneys, Dan Chambers, said in his closing argument of the trial 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 was “reasonable doubt” on the issues of intent to kill and what actually caused Anthony’s death.
Chambers said it was a “bunch of crap” to suggest that the alleged abuse started with Leiva, saying 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.
Barron and Leiva were charged in June 2018 with Anthony’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 Anthony’s relatives. 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.
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