Proponents of a drive to recall Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón say the progressive prosecutor is “going easy” on a couple accused of killing a 10-year-old boy after his office dropped its bid for the death penalty this week.
City News Service reports, Heather Maxine Barron, 31, and her boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 35, were charged in the June 2018 death of Barron’s son, Anthony Avalos. According to the outlet, both could now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted as charged of murder and torture. Prosecutors had added a special-circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture to the underlying charges, which had made Barron and Leiva eligible for capital punishment.
The latest controversial move from the D.A.’s office stems from a set of special directives Gascón unveiled after taking office in December that barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty. Leiva’s attorney told KCAL News that the legal team expected this decision after Gascón took office.
“This is not based upon new evidence,” said L.A. County Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami, who has been a vocal critic of Gascón’s new direction. “This is not based upon new mitigation or new law. I stand by the special-circumstance committee decision that I announced to the court on the record two years ago.”
Do those who voted for LA County’s new District Attorney support this move?
The death penalty has been taken off the table for a mother and her boyfriend who allegedly tortured her 10 y/o son, Anthony Avalos, to death. Gascón’s own deputy DA is speaking out against him. @KTLA pic.twitter.com/oxswcQkStj
— Christina Pascucci (@ChristinaKTLA) May 7, 2021
The Los Angeles Times reported that Avalos “came out as gay” weeks before his death. Sources told the Times that law enforcement officers and the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had “documented years of severe abuse allegations,” the outlet had previously reported.
In 2018, the Times provided more details about the alleged abuse that prosecutors say led to Avalos’ death:
For a week or so before Anthony slipped out of consciousness and died on June 21, Barron and Leiva allegedly poured hot sauce on the boy’s face, forced him to kneel on rice and repeatedly lashed the bottom of his feet with a belt, according to a motion filed by Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami. The defendants gave the boy rug burns, dangled him upside down and dropped him on his head, and switched between withholding food for long periods and force-feeding him, Hatami wrote.
But the brutality, prosecutors say, began long before Anthony’s last tortured days and, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and DCFS records, included at least three of Anthony’s siblings. Hatami wrote that Leiva hit them with a hose, forced them to squat against a wall for long periods of time — the “captain’s chair,” he called it — and hurled dirty diapers at them. In one instance, the prosecutor wrote, Leiva hit Anthony’s younger brother with enough force that the boy needed medical attention and staples to close a head wound.
ABC 7 reported Barron and Leiva forced Avalos to “fight his siblings.”
The pair also faces child abuse charges involving two other minors who lived in the home.
Prosecutors have described Leiva in court documents as an active member of the MS-13 street gang, an accusation that was reportedly repeated by child protective caseworkers.
According to City News Service, Avalos’ 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.”
This is the second time Gascón’s office has taken the death penalty off the table since he was sworn in. The other case involves a suspect accused of killing his cousin and a police officer. Prosecutors said they were “ordered to remove the death penalty as punishment consideration.”
— Alex Villanueva (@LACoSheriff) May 7, 2021
During Gascón’s campaign, he said the practice “is fatally flawed, racially biased, and risks executing innocent people.” He released a plan “to end the death penalty and resentence those condemned to death,” pledging to “embark upon a thorough review of every existing death penalty case from Los Angeles County.”
Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order in 2019 suspending the death penalty during his administration. Gascón previously said he would “actively support the Governor’s moratorium” if elected. Only voters can repeal the death penalty, which is part of the state constitution. The last execution in California occurred on January 17, 2006.
Earlier this week, the City of Covina became the seventh city in L.A. County to pass a resolution expressing “no confidence” in D.A. Gascón. Councilman John King told Los Angeles Magazine that lawmakers had “voted to communicate with our District Attorney in a public and direct way.”
“I know that our council voice may be lost in the bigger discussions taking place, but I and my colleagues are hearing concern, fear, and anger from our community around Mr. Gascón’s directives,” King told the outlet. “Our action has no immediate impact other than to give voice to those that are fearful that Gascón’s directives will continue to erode the quality of life in our communities.”
Covina Mayor Jorge A. Marquez voted against the resolution, saying, “this is just the wrong way to send a message.” Marquez told L.A. Magazine the action was the first time the city had taken a vote of no confidence on an elected official.
“It undermines democracy,” said Marquez. “He was democratically elected and he is doing exactly what he said he was out to do. He spoke to voters.”
Still, advocates of a drive to recall Gascón point out that some of his reforms were not part of his platform during the campaign, such as prohibiting prosecutors from filing most gun enhancements.
Organizers told supporters this week that “the campaign to Recall George Gascon is ramping up, equipping volunteers, and awaiting the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters to approve the petition,” which they said “will happen shortly.” The committee, called Victims of Violent Crime for the Recall of District Attorney Gascón, indicated it is “quickly raising money, purchasing tables, chairs, pop-up tents, and other materials we need to collect the 580,000 signatures required to qualify for the ballot.”
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