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Judge hears closing arguments in trial of Lancaster boy’s death

By TERRI VERMEULEN KEITH | City News Service

A prosecutor told a judge on Thursday, Feb. 23, that a Lancaster woman and her boyfriend are “evil” and “monsters” and should be held accountable for the murder and torture of her 10-year-old son, while the woman’s attorney countered that her client should be acquitted of the most serious charges.

Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta is hearing the case of Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, as a result of a decision by both sides to waive their right to a jury trial.

Barron and Leiva are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving the June 2018 death of Anthony Avalos, along with two counts of child abuse involving the boy’s half-siblings, identified in court as “Destiny O.” and “Rafael O.”

The murder count 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.

In his closing argument, the prosecutor told the judge, “I do believe that you will see this was intentional murder by torture.”

He noted 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.

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.

“It wasn’t just Leiva doing the abuse,” Hatami said. “Heather Barron participated in the torture … Heather Barron participated in the abuse.”

The prosecutor said Barron and Leiva “weren’t trying to save Anthony” but were “trying to save themselves” when Barron called 911 on June 20, 2018, after the boy was left on the floor 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.

“She wasn’t suffering from intimate partner violence. She was covering up,” the prosecutor said of Barron being questioned following a September 2015 call that was made to a child abuse hotline in which alleged abuse was reported.

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, 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.

“He admitted to brutalizing Anthony,” she said of his interview with Los Angeles County sheriff’s detectives. “He confessed to every single act of violence and torture.”

The defense lawyer said Leiva had been left alone with the boy — who was at home while being punished — while Barron took her other children on errands, and was in another room at other times caring for her three youngest children, who had been fathered by Leiva.

“Lying is not an intent to kill,” Sperber said of Barron’s initial statements to investigators. “It is a symptom of battered woman syndrome.”

Barron’s attorney disputed the prosecution’s allegation of a well-conspired plan by the defendants, saying Barron and Leiva were “two people I don’t think have the capability to do that.”

The judge — who is not expected to announce an immediate decision —is set to hear later Thursday from an attorney representing Leiva.

One of Leiva’s attorneys said in his opening statement 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 noted 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 at the start of the trial.

The boy’s half-siblings testified earlier this month that they had been forced to undergo punishment, including kneeling on uncooked rice, wrestling each other and watching each other be disciplined, and that they saw their mother’s boyfriend dropping Anthony repeatedly on the bedroom floor.

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One of Leiva’s daughters, who is now 18, testified that she also saw her father repeatedly dropping Anthony on the floor and that the boy appeared to be dead when she saw him two days later.

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.

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