A mother and her boyfriend were found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of the Lancaster woman’s 10-year-old son, a judge announced Tuesday.
Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta read the guilty verdicts in the non-jury trial of Heather Maxine Barron and Kareem Ernesto Leiva. Both sides waived their right to having the horrific child abuse case heard by a jury.
Barron, 33, and Leiva, 37, were charged with one count each of murder and torture in the June 21, 2018 death of her son, Anthony Avalos. Both defendants were in court for the reading of the verdicts.
Verdicts on other counts against Barron and Leiva, including two counts of child abuse involving the boy’s half-siblings, have yet to be read.
The murder count includes the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office dropped a 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. Details about a sentencing date were not immediately available.
Closing arguments wrapped up Feb. 22.
In his closing argument, the prosecutor described the two defendants as “evil” and “monsters.”
“I do believe that you will see this was intentional murder by torture,” Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami told the judge.
The prosecutor said 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.
In an exclusive interview the Director of LA County’s Department of Children and Family Services, he shares how the agency is making changes after the Anthony Avalos case. Lolita Lopez reports for NBC4’s I-Team on Feb. 28, 2023.
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.
Barron called 911 on June 20, 2018, after the boy was left on the floor of her 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.
Attorneys for the defendants countered that Barron and Leiva should be acquitted of the most serious charges.
One of Barron’s attorneys, Nancy Sperber, urged the judge to acquit Barron of murder and torture, but did not directly address the two child abuse counts. The defense lawyer 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.
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.
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.