Death penalty dropped for Lancaster mother, boyfriend charged with murder and torture of Anthony Avalos

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In a decision that has been widely criticized, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office this week took the death penalty off the table for a Lancaster mother and her boyfriend charged with murder and torture in the death of the woman’s 10-year-old son Anthony Avalos.

“If there was ever a poster child case for the death penalty to be implemented, it was on the death of Anthony Avalos,” said attorney Brian Claypool, who represents the victim’s family. He told KTLA the family “was in tears” upon hearing the news Thursday.

Avalos was found unresponsive in June of 2018 after his mother called 911 saying he had suffered a fall in their apartment. He died the following morning.

Authorities later said they discovered evidence of abuse and torture in the case and arrested Avalos’ mother Heather Barron and her boyfriend Kareem Leiva.

The boy was tortured for at least five days in the days leading up to this death, according to prosecutors.

Court documents detailed the allegations against the couple, including that they repeatedly beat him with a cord and belt, slammed him into furniture, held him by his feet and dropped him on his head, and poured hot sauce on his face and mouth. Avalos was also alternately starved and force-fed, the documents stated.

In October 2018, a grand jury indicted both defendants on capital murder charges, a move that superseded the previous criminal case, according to the District Attorney’s Office.

Under former L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, prosecutors had pushed for capital punishment due to the horrific nature of the case. The pair were eligible due to the initial special circumstance charges filed by the office in 2018.

But that has changed under new DA George Gascón, who unveiled a series of criminal justice reforms once sworn into the post.

Barron and Leiva now face a possible maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

With the death penalty off the table, some of Avalos’ family members say they will never receive full justice.

“Putting them on Death Row minimizes a lot of their comforts that they’ll get, and maybe they’ll feel a little torture that Anthony got to feel,” David Barron, the boy’s uncle, said.

Claypool slammed Gascón for the reversal.

“I had to look at the mother of Anthony Avalos and her boyfriend and see them smirking and smiling, because they knew George Gascón was on their team,” the attorney said. “He should be on the team of the people in this community.” 

A spokesperson for Gascón issued the following statement defending the decision Friday:

California hasn’t had an execution since 2006, and there’s now a moratorium on executions. 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. 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. The death penalty has also been shown to be racist in its application, and it has never been shown to be a deterrent to crime. Finally, the death penalty is irreversible, and just last week DNA and fingerprint evidence in an Arkansas case identified someone other than the man executed by the state in 2017.

The decision not to seek the toughest penalty possible in the case was also decried by Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes Lancaster.

“This was a horrific crime perpetrated against a young child by those who were meant to love and protect him. Those who are responsible for his torture and murder should be held accountable and punished to the fullest extent of the law,” Barger said in a statement. “This death shook the community and this decision by the District Attorney has not been supported by the prosecuting attorney on this case.” 

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