Anthony Avalos: DA's office drops death penalty for mom, her boyfriend accused of murder, torture

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office has dropped its bid for the death penalty against a Lancaster woman and her boyfriend, who are charged with the murder and torture of their 10-year-old son Anthony Avalos.

Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami -- who has criticized new District Attorney George Gascón for a series of directives including one that advises that "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case'' -- opposed the latest decision in the case of Heather Maxine Barron and Kareem Ernesto Leiva.

Barron, 31, and Leiva, 35, could now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted as charged of murder and torture, along with the special-circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture, for Anthony's June 2018 death.

"This is not based upon new evidence. This is not based upon new mitigation or new law. I stand by the special-circumstances committee decision that I announced to the court on the record two years ago,'' Hatami said, referring to the August 2019 announcement that the death penalty would be sought against the two under prior District Attorney Jackie Lacey's administration.

It marks the second high-profile case in which the assigned prosecutors have publicly objected to the death penalty being dropped as a potential punishment. Deputy District Attorneys Garrett Dameron that he and fellow prosecutor Geoff Lewin had been "ordered to remove the death penalty as punishment consideration'' in the case of Michael Christopher Mejia, who is awaiting trial on charges stemming from the 2017 killings of Whittier Police Officer Keith Boyer and Mejia's own cousin.

Along with the murder charge, Barron and Leiva are facing two counts of child abuse involving two other children in the home. Leiva is also 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 Anthony 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.

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The boy's father, aunt, uncle and six of his half-siblings filed a lawsuit last summer against the county, alleging that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Anthony and his siblings.

The lawsuit cites 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.

Anthony's aunt and uncle, Maria and David Barron, are saddened following the dropped death penalty bid.

"It's upsetting to know that they [Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva] think they're going to get away with it. For him [Leiva] to nod the way that he did in relief almost [during court], it's just hard to hear, but we know that Jonathan Hatami [Deputy District Attorney] is not gonna give up. We will get justice and we won't stop fighting," said David. 

"We are angry. We're mad and we want them to be punished because Anthony deserves justice. He was just a great kid," said Maria.

Maria and David said they miss their nephew daily.

"I miss his smile, his laughter, his jokes. Just his overall personality was so bubbly. He was so affectionate, and as soon as he would see uncle David, auntie Maria, he would run up to us, give us a hug, kisses and I just miss hearing his voice. I just miss hearing auntie Maria. I miss it a lot. There's a void in our hearts and it's never going to be filled. We're always missing a part of us. I see my daughter, they're the same age and I say Anthony should be there. Anthony should be starting middle school, so many things Anthony should be doing and we always think of him," said Maria. 

David said he never imagined the bid for the death penalty would be dropped. 

"We never thought it would get reversed. There was so much evidence and the crime was so horrible what they did to him, why do they deserve anything else but death?" said David.

David and Maria said the possibility of life in prison with no parole would be the best-case scenario without the death penalty, but they do not believe it fits the cruelty of the crime. 

"It's better than letting them out at some point but the worst punishment should be dealt to the worst crime and this is one of the worst crimes," said David. 

"If we don't get the justice that Anthony deserves, what's stopping another person, another parent, another mother, another father from hurting their child? The cycle keeps repeating itself. They're gonna know that they're not gonna have true punishment," said Maria.

Maria and David are planning to celebrate Anthony's birthday Saturday with family members. They're also working on getting signatures for a petition against Gascón.

FOX 11 reached out to George Gascón's team for comment, and did not yet receive a response. 

City News Service contributed to this report.

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