Tuesday, Anthony Avalos’ mother and her ex-boyfriend were found guilty of murder in the 2018 death of the 10-year-old boy. His short and tragic life showed that the county’s child welfare system had a lot of problems.
Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva, who were charged with a crime, chose to have their case heard by a judge instead of a jury. Judge Sam Ohta of the Los Angeles County Superior Court made the decision after looking at the evidence for six days.
The defendants were also found guilty of torturing Anthony and abusing two of his siblings. Ohta upheld a special circumstances claim that the couple tortured the boy in order to kill him. Under California law, they must be given a sentence of life in prison without the chance to get out.
As Ohta read the verdict, neither Barron nor Leiva said or did anything. When the judge said that Leiva was guilty of the first count, some family members and people who fight for the rights of victims yelled “yes!” from the gallery. After Ohta was done reading the verdict, Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami walked into the audience and gave hugs to many of Avalos’ crying relatives.
“Anthony was a sweet and funny little boy who loved spending time with us, his aunts and uncles. “Today, I feel relieved that they will finally pay for what they did,” his aunt Maria Barron said at a news conference after the hearing. “But we will always feel this pain because nobody will ever be able to take away the pain of losing Anthony.”
Prosecutors said Barron had hurt Anthony and two of his siblings for years, but when she started dating Leiva, the situation became even more dangerous and deadly. Prosecutors say that Leiva, who is accused of being in a gang, would often beat the kids with belts, put hot sauce in their mouths, and force Anthony and his siblings to fight each other. Prosecutors said that Leiva would beat the losers of the fights with his hands after they were over.
The children were also forced to kneel for long periods of time on bare floors, nails, or uncooked rice, or to hold the “Captain’s Chair” position until they fell over from the pain. Prosecutors said Barron had turned the locks on several bedroom doors in her Lancaster home around so that the children would be trapped inside without food, water, or a bathroom. If the kids went to the bathroom while they were locked up, Leiva would shove their faces in their own poop.
Deputy District Attorney Saeed Teymouri said that when paramedics went to the family’s home in Lancaster in June 2018, they found Anthony brain dead and without a pulse. During his opening statement, Teymouri showed pictures of a sickly Anthony in an emergency room while he talked. He said that the boy was so hungry and thirsty that his veins had collapsed.
Maria Barron testified that she told the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services in 2015 that Anthony had been abused. This was one of 13 times between 2013 and 2017 that the agency heard about violence against Anthony from teachers, counselors, family members, or the police.
The boy stayed at Leiva and Barron’s house, though. The agency never tried to take the kids away from Barron, and no DCFS workers have been disciplined because of the case.
During the five-week trial, several DCFS workers took the stand, but they didn’t explain why they didn’t do more to make sure Anthony was safe. A recording played at the trial showed that one DCFS worker could be heard laughing and making jokes while hearing about Anthony’s abuse over an emergency hotline.
DCFS sent people from its media relations department to watch parts of the trial, but the agency hasn’t said anything about the case yet. The failures of the child welfare agency that led to Anthony’s death were compared to the torture and murder of Gabriel Fernandez, which was also a tragedy. Hatami was also the main prosecutor in that case, and some of Fernandez’s family members went to court on Tuesday to show their support for Anthony’s family.
“In this case, no one won. No matter what I do, I never win. Hatami said after court, “We can’t bring Anthony back, and the Department of Children and Family Services keeps failing our kids.” “But I do think that the two people most to blame for Anthony’s death have been found guilty. They’ll be held accountable for what they did. And Anthony’s voice was heard in court loud and clear.”
Barron told paramedics that Anthony hurt himself at first, but Anthony’s siblings both said that Leiva dropped the 10-year-old boy on his head many times.
Leiva told the police that he hurt Anthony, but he denied giving him the blows that killed him. Barron said Leiva beat her up at home and she couldn’t stop him, but prosecutors showed evidence that the woman had been accused of abusing her children long before Leiva came into her life.
The defendants’ lawyers were not available right away to say anything.
Ohta said that Barron and Leiva’s defense was thrown out because Anthony’s siblings testified and there was medical evidence. Ohta said it was scientifically impossible for Barron to say that her son had thrown a fit and hurt himself the morning paramedics came. He pointed out that several doctors testified that Anthony was so dehydrated that he may not have drunk anything for at least five days.
“The defendant didn’t call 911 until Anthony was dead,” Ohta said, adding that Barron had shown a “flagrant” lack of concern for her son’s safety.
Ohta also came to the conclusion that Barron and Leiva treated Anthony much worse than they did the other kids in their care, causing him a lot of pain.
The judge said, “It is clear to this court that both defendants used Anthony as a scapegoat for being very cruel.” “They chose Anthony as their target to get some relief from their problems.”
Rafael and Destiny, two of Anthony’s siblings, testified on one of the hardest days of the emotional trial. Rafael, who is now 12 years old, told the judge that Leiva took his own kids and ran away when he found out that Barron was calling the police the day Anthony’s body was found. When Barron’s lawyer asked Rafael who he thought was to blame for Anthony’s death, Rafael said, “Kareem.”
After Destiny told Hatami how Leiva hit Anthony on the head over and over again the day before he died, Hatami asked if the boy just laid on the carpet and couldn’t move. She agreed.
“What did Mommy do?” Hatami asked.
Destiny, who is 13 years old, said, “Nothing.”
After the court hearing, Hatami and some of Anthony’s family members criticized Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón for saying that prosecutors couldn’t go for the death penalty in the case. Gascón also told prosecutors to get rid of the claim that there were special circumstances in the case. This was part of his larger plan to limit the use of life sentences, but Hatami refused.
Without the claim of special circumstances, Barron and Leiva would have still been sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for murder, but they would have been able to get out of jail eventually. Hatami, who has been a longtime critic of Gascón and is suing him and is expected to run against him in 2024, slammed his boss for making such a big decision without looking into the case or meeting with the families of the victims.
“What is that person like?” Hatami asked over and over.
Tuesday, the focus should have been on the victims, said Tiffiny Blacknell, who is in charge of communications for the district attorney’s office.
“Today should be about making the horrible people who hurt this helpless child pay for what they did, and we’re glad the court did that. “Unfortunately, it looks like this terrible event is being used for political purposes,” she said in a statement. “These two people could spend the rest of their lives in prison without ever getting out. This makes sure that they’ll die in jail. This is the right result, and it is also a very serious one. No one should act like anything else.”