By Terri Vermeulen Keith
City News Service
LOS ANGELES (CNS) – Trial began Wednesday for a Lancaster woman and her boyfriend, who are charged with murder and torture involving her 10-year-old son’s death.
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.
Barron and Leiva — who are jailed without bail — were charged in June 2018 with the boy’s killing and were subsequently indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury in October 2018.
The murder charge involves 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 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.
The indictment also charged Barron and Leiva with two counts of child abuse involving two other children in the home, with Leiva facing an allegation that he personally inflicted great bodily injury on one of the youngsters in circumstances involving domestic violence.
In court papers, prosecutors alleged that Avalos was severely tortured during the last five or six days of his life by Barron and Leiva, who “abused, beat, assaulted and tortured” him.
The alleged abuse included whipping the boy with a belt and a looped cord, pouring hot sauce on his face and mouth, holding him by his feet and dropping him on his head repeatedly, according to the court papers.
Deputies and paramedics responded to a 911 call from Barron about 12:15 p.m. June 20 and found her son unresponsive inside his family’s apartment.
Authorities said they were told that the child had suffered injuries from a fall, but investigators quickly classified the death as “suspicious.”
The boy died early the next morning, authorities said.
The boy’s father, aunt, uncle and six of his half-siblings filed a lawsuit against the county, alleging that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Avalos and his siblings.
The lawsuit cited other high-profile deaths of children who were also being monitored by DCFS — 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and 4-year-old Noah Cuatro, both of Palmdale — to allege “systemic failures” in the agency.
The Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) issued a statement declining to comment on the specifics of the suit, but generally defending the agency’s work.
“At any given time, the Department of Children and Family Services serves more than 34,000 families and vulnerable children in Los Angeles County with an unwavering commitment to pursue child safety every day in our communities,” according to the agency. “Our 9,000 employees do not take this commitment lightly and look to do everything possible to safeguard the children in our care.
“All DCFS employees are held to the highest standards to ensure that the public trust in our service is honored and maintained,” according to the DCFS statement.