Anthony Avalos’ mother and her boyfriend were convicted of murder in the death of the 10-year-old, whose short and tragic life exposed massive shortcomings in the county’s child welfare system.

The defendants, Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva, opted to have their case heard by a judge rather than a jury. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta handed down the verdict after spending a little over two weeks reviewing evidence.

Ohta also found the couple guilty of the special circumstance of torture; they both will face life in prison without parole when they are sentenced.

Prosecutors alleged that Barron had abused Anthony and two of his siblings for years, but the situation turned even more dangerous, and deadly, after she began dating Leiva. An alleged gang member, Leiva would routinely beat the children with belts, prosecutors said, pour hot sauce in their mouths and make Anthony and his siblings fight one another. The losers of the impromptu brawls would then suffer corporal punishment at Leiva’s hands, prosecutors alleged.

The children also were forced to kneel on exposed floors, nails or uncooked rice for long periods of time or hold a squatted position, dubbed the “Captain’s Chair,” until they fell over from pain.

In June 2018, paramedics arrived at the family’s Lancaster home to find Anthony brain dead and without a pulse, according to Deputy Dist. Atty. Saeed Teymouri. During his opening statement, Teymouri spoke while displaying pictures of a withered Avalos in an emergency room. He said the boy was “so malnourished and dehydrated that his veins were collapsed.”

Barron’s sister-in-law, Maria, reported abuse allegations to the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services in 2015, one of 13 times the agency received reports about violence against Anthony from teachers, counselors, relatives or police between 2013 and 2017.

Yet, the boy remained in Leiva and Barron’s home. The agency never made an attempt to remove the children from Barron’s custody and no DCFS employees have been disciplined in connection with the case.

Several DCFS employees took the stand during the five-week trial, but they failed to explain why they didn’t take additional steps out of concern for the children’s safety. One DCFS employee could be heard laughing and telling jokes while receiving a description of abuse suffered by Anthony over an emergency hotline, according to a recording played during the trial.

While Barron initially told paramedics that Anthony hurt himself, the boy’s siblings both testified that Leiva repeatedly dropped the 10-year-old on his head.

The children, Rafael and Destiny, took the stand in one the most brutal days of the relentlessly emotional trial. Rafael, now 12, told the courtroom that Leiva took his own children and fled once he realized Barron was calling the police. When Barron’s attorney asked whom he blamed for Anthony’s death, Rafael simply blurted out the name “Kareem.”

After describing how Leiva repeatedly slammed Anthony on his head the day before he died, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonahtan Hatami asked Destiny if the boy just lay on the carpet unable to move. She said yes.

“And what did Mommy do?” Hatami asked.

“Nothing,” Destiny, now 13, replied.

Both defendants were charged with murder, torture and two counts of child abuse.

In an interview with Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies shortly after his arrest, Leiva admitted to abusing the children, though his defense attorney’s have denied he dropped Avalos on his head or caused the fatal injuries suffered in 2018.

“Maybe I need help,” Leiva said, according to a recorded interview played in court. “I can’t blame anybody but myself because I’m the one, you know. It’s my fault, everything is just my fault.”

Barron has said she was also a victim of Leiva’s abuse and was powerless to stop him.

James Queally

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