A couple accused of murder and horrific child abuse, including allegations that they poured hot sauce in the victim's face, lashed the bottom of his feet with a belt and forced him to kneel on rice, could face the death penalty if convicted, prosecutors say.
Heather Barron, 29, and Kareem Leiva, 32, pleaded not guilty to the charges against them Wednesday.
They were each charged in June with one count of murder and torture in the death of Barron's son Anthony Avalos, but Los Angeles County prosecutors have decided to add a special circumstance allegation that could allow for the possibility of the death penalty in the case. The charge was added because prosecutors believe the death was intentional and involved the infliction of torture, a statement from prosecutors said.
Prosecutors also added an additional charge of child abuse Wednesday after they said the couple also beat the victim's younger brother.
Avalos' death came after a horrific week of torture and abuse as he drifted in and out of consciousness, according to a motion filed by Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami. The couple is accused of forcing the boy to kneel on rice and dropping him on his head while holding him upside down. Prosecutors have also alleged that the couple gave him rug burns, threw hot sauce in his face and lashed the bottom of his feet with a belt, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The couple also would allegedly alternate between withholding food and force-feeding him.
In the weeks leading up to his death, Avalos had reportedly come out as gay, according to an earlier Los Angles Times article. Investigators were trying to determine whether that may have been a motive for the abuse.
His mother reportedly called 911 on June 20 to report her son had fallen, but when police arrived they found the young boy unresponsive, KTLA reports. He was taken to the hospital, where he died the next day.
The boy's relatives, who were in court Wednesday, have voiced anger that the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services didn't remove the boy from the home after repeated investigations into the couple's behavior. The department had reportedly investigated more than 88 claims of abuse since 2013, according to the LA Times.
"We want a full-blown investigation," Barron's brother David Barron told reporters after the hearing, according to the Los Angeles Times.
His wife, Maria Barron, praised prosecutors for the new charges, but said nothing would be able to give her closure.
"They might get the death penalty, but that’s not going to bring Anthony back," she said, according to KTLA.
A preliminary hearing in the case is scheduled for Nov. 27.