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California Mom, Boyfriend Sentenced to Life in Prison for Torturing 10-Year-Old Anthony Avalos to Death

Heather Barron and Kareem Leiva were convicted of first-degree murder in the 2018 death of Anthony Avalos, who they subjected to horrific, sustained abuse.

By Christina Coulter
Killer Motive: What Drives People To Kill?

A California mother and her boyfriend were sentenced Tuesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the brutal abuse and murder of 10-year-old Anthony Avalos.

Heather Maxine Barron, 33, and her Kareem Ernesto Leiva, 37, were convicted last month of first-degree murder in Anthony's June 2018 death, as well as charges for abusing their two other children in their Lancaster home.   

Prosecutors said that the pair systematically subjected Anthony to "unimaginable brutality" for years before his death, which which reached a tragic crescendo in the two weeks leading up to his death. 

Anthony was severely dehydrated and malnourished when he was taken to the hospital the day before he died, just two weeks after he graduated from fourth grade.

RELATED: California Mother And Boyfriend Convicted Of 2018 Murder And Torture Of Her 10-Year-Old Son

"The brutality that was meted out on this young child was unimaginable," the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said in a statement after the pair were convicted. "No child should endure this kind of violence and torture at the hands of the people who are supposed to love and protect them from harm."

Anthony Avalos Fb

Tuesday's sentencing included almost two hours of heart-rending victim impact statements from the boy's surviving family, according to NBC Los Angeles

Anthony's half-sister Destiny, who prosecutors also allege was abused in Barron's home, needed a few moments to quell her tears before speaking first at the hearing. She wrote in her impact statement that she wished she had died instead of Anthony. 

"Kareem, you came into our life and ruined everything," she wrote in her statement, which Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami helped her deliver, according to NBC Los Angeles. "He did not protect us and took part in the torture. To me, you're both monsters." 

Three of the children in the household - Anthony's two half-siblings and one of Leiva's daughters - testified to the abuse they and Anthony were subjected to. Anthony, who died of head injuries, was repeatedly dropped on the floor by Leiva, they said. Other punishments included being forced to kneel on uncooked rice and wrestle each other. When they tried to tell other adults about their mistreatment, no one believed them, Hatami said in his closing arguments, according to NBC Los Angeles. 

Dana, Anthony's cousin, said that "since the death of [her] cousin, things have never been the same." 

"I used to call [Barron] my aunt. Now I only call her a monster," she said.

Matthew, Anthony's 8-year-old cousin, also spoke to the court before Superior Court Judge Sam Ohta handed down his sentence.

"He always played with me and made me laugh," Matthew said. "I have a video I like to play over and over again of him making me laugh when I was little. We will never get to see Anthony grow up. I will never get to play again with my older cousin."

"[Barron] is an evil monster," the boy continued, according to ABC 7. "She deserves to spend the rest of her life in prison. I don't forgive [Barron] for taking my cousin's life. I hope she gets beat up in jail because I just wanted to meet Anthony."

Barron's brother, David, told Ohta in his impact statement that he needed "to make sure these people never walk the streets again" and that what they did to their children was "unspeakable." 

"Please don't let these monsters out ever," he said.

He and his other sister, Crystal Diuguid, testified that their repeated reports of the abuse to the county's Department of Children and Family Services also fell on deaf ears. 

The Los Angeles Board of Supervisors approved a $32 million settlement to Anthony's relatives in October after they filed a lawsuit alleging multiple social workers failed to properly respond to their reports of abuse against the children in Barron's home, according to earlier reporting by NBC Los Angeles.

Although Leiva and Barron faced the death penalty in the case, District Attorney Gascon issued a directive against handing down the harshest penalty, writing that "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case."

Hatami objected to that decision and intends to run against Gascon for District Attorney. He told reporters that he refused to comply with another order from Gascon's office to remove a special circumstance allegation that would have allowed the two defendants to be eligible for parole, NBC Los Angeles reported. 

Diane Ravago, a paramedic of nine years that testified to Avalos' injuries in earlier court hearings, said that she is haunted by her memories of the boy's condition when she responded to the family's home. 

"Of all the trauma, tragedy and death I've ever seen or heard of, this surpasses them all. It may seem counter-intuitive as someone who rushes to save lives to publicly wish death on another human," Ravago said, addressing the couple. 

"I actually wish the opposite for you both," she continued. "I would hope that you are both made to feel alone, tormented, neglected, scared, confused, unwanted, unsafe, disgusting, useless, hated, lost, unloved and every other horrible emotion you inflicted on Anthony and even more. Death would only end those feelings for you."  

Although Anthony appeared to be dead when Ravago and other authorities responded to the family's home, coverered in "abrasions, scabs, bruising front to back, head to toe" and cigarette burns, according to the paramedic's earlier court testimony, witnesses said Barron didn't cry or appear to be concerned. 

Similarly, neither Barron not Leiva spoke during Tuesday's sentencing hearing.

The pair claimed that Anthony self-inflicted his own injuries - a traumatic brain injury and cardiac arrest - by throwing himself on the ground.

Nancy Sperber, one of Barron's attorneys, argued that her client was a victim of battered woman syndrome and said that Leiva took "full and complete responsibility for every act of violence" committed against the 10-year-old. She said that Barron was a victim of abuse herself, allegedly at the hands of her stepfather; Barron's sister testified that she and her sister underwent many of the punishments later meted out to Barron's children.

"I would submit to the court that Ms. Barron... didn't have the power to prevent this. She didn't have the power to say no," Sperber said. 

Dan Chambers, one of Leiva's attorneys said that it was a "bunch of crap" to assume that Leiva masterminded the abuse, claiming that Barron dreamed up many of the ideas for the children's punishments. Chambers also said in closing arguments that there was reasonable doubt that the couple intended to kill the boy, though he conceded they displayed "extreme, unjustified, out-of-bounds behavior."

But Ohta rejected those arguments and said that the couple showed their intent to kill the boy by delaying their call to paramedics and attempting to cover up the scene of abuse. 

"Defendant Barron waited to call 911 until Anthony was literally deceased on the afternoon of June 20, 2018," Ohta said. "This flagrant lack of care for Anthony's life all points to intent to kill by both defendant Barron and defendant Leiva."