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Prosecutors will no longer seek death penalty in the Anthony Avalos torture case

Alex Wigglesworth and Alene Tchekmedyian, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

LOS ANGELES — Prosecutors will no longer seek the death penalty for the mother of Anthony Avalos and her boyfriend, who are accused of torturing the 10-year-old Lancaster boy for days before his death in 2018, Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon’s office confirmed Saturday.

A grand jury indicted Heather Maxine Barron, 31, and Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 35, in October 2018 on charges that they murdered the boy and abused two other children in the household.

Barron and Leiva are being held without bail. Both have pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors have said the couple poured hot sauce on Anthony’s face and mouth, whipped the boy with a looped cord and belt, and held him upside down and dropped him on his head repeatedly. They also alleged that the couple alternately withheld food and force-fed him, slammed him into furniture and the floor, denied access to the bathroom, and enlisted other children in the home to inflict pain.

Anthony’s wounds stretched from head to toe as bruises, abrasions, red dots, scabs, cuts and a traumatic brain injury, prosecutors have said. In addition to the injuries suffered by Anthony that resulted in his June 21 death, prosecutors have said that Leiva previously struck one of his brothers so hard that the boy required a trip to the hospital and staples on his head.

The decision not to seek capital punishment came as a shift from the strategy pursued by the office of Gascon’s predecessor, former District Attorney Jackie Lacey. Prosecutors had announced in court in 2019 that they would pursue the death penalty against Barron and Leiva.

 

Gascon unseated Lacey after running on a progressive platform of criminal justice reform. He issued a directive barring prosecutors from seeking the death penalty in new cases as part of a series of sweeping policy changes he enacted after taking office last year. The move fulfilled a campaign promise but sparked backlash from some current and former prosecutors, local law enforcement officials and crime victims. A campaign to recall Gascon was launched soon after he was elected.

A spokesman for Gascon’s office noted that there is a moratorium on executions in California, where no one has been put to death since 2006.

“Seeking death in these cases subjects victims to decades of appeals — forcing them to relive their trauma repeatedly — for a sentence that will simply never be imposed,” the spokesman said in a statement. “It is also extremely expensive, with California spending over $5 billion on the death penalty since 1978 — a cost to taxpayers of nearly $400 million per execution.”

But Gascon has made at least one exception, writing in court papers in February that he would not order lawyers to ask for dismissal of the death penalty jury verdict in the case of Michael Gargiulo, who was convicted in 2019 of killing two women and seriously injuring another in a series of knife attacks.

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