LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The half-siblings of a 10-year-old boy who died in 2018 testified Wednesday that they had been forced to undergo punishment, including kneeling on uncooked rice, wrestling each other and watching each other be disciplined in their Lancaster home, and that they saw their mother's boyfriend repeatedly dropping their half-brother on the bedroom floor shortly before his death.
The testimony of Anthony Avalos' half-sister, identified in court only as Destiny O., and his half-brother, Rafael O., came during the non-jury trial of their mother, Heather Maxine Barron, and her live-in boyfriend, Kareem Ernesto Leiva.
WARNING: This article contains graphic descriptions of child abuse which may be disturbing to some.
Barron and Leiva are charged with one count each of murder and torture involving Anthony's June 2018 death, along with two counts of child abuse involving Destiny and Rafael.
The murder count includes the special circumstance allegation of murder involving the infliction of torture. Over the objection of Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Hatami, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office dropped its bid for the death penalty against the two after the election of District Attorney George Gascón, who issued a directive that "a sentence of death is never an appropriate resolution in any case.''
Barron, 33, and Leiva, 37, now face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if they are convicted as charged.
"It's just heartbreaking to know everything that they saw and had to do," said Anthony's aunt, Crystal Diuguid. "No one saved them. They could have been saved."
David Barron, Anthony's uncle, echoed that sentiment, saying, "Not even adults should have to say something like this, but the kids? Even worse."
David Barron and Diuguid are Heather Barron's siblings.
Destiny O., now 13 years old, testified that Anthony had been forced to undergo a series of punishments the night before her mother called 911 to report that he was not breathing, including Leiva picking him up and dropping him "probably 10 (times) or a little more.''
"I think it was giving him brain damage,'' she said, noting that the boy was "saying weird things.''
"Where was mommy?'' the prosecutor asked.
"She was watching,'' the seventh-grader testified.
She said her mother subsequently directed her and Rafael not to say anything to the police when they were called to the house the next day.
Rafael, who is now 12, said he saw Anthony being dropped by Leiva about 20 times the night before his mother called 911 to report that his half-brother wasn't breathing. He said his mother "didn't try to protect Anthony.'' He acknowledged that he didn't initially tell police about what had happened because he was trying to protect his mother, but testified that he didn't want to cover it up any longer "now that I see what she did.''
The sixth-grader -- who now lives with his sister, their aunt and their grandmother -- testified that his mother and her boyfriend made the children kneel on rice even though it hurt and they cried.
"Did your knees get sore?'' the prosecutor asked.
"Yes,'' he testified.
"Did they ever bleed?'' the prosecutor asked, with the boy responding affirmatively and saying that the children were sometimes pushed into the rice.
He said that punishment could sometimes last hours -- or even all day.
The boy said things changed after Leiva moved into their home and acknowledged that his mother was not in the room when Leiva directed the two boys to fight each other as a disciplinary measure. He said he remembered thinking that Anthony's death was Leiva's fault.
He testified that he doesn't love his mother as much as he used to, explaining that his feelings have changed since he began to "realize all the bad things she did to me.''
Destiny -- who wiped away tears at least one point during her testimony as her mother sat seemingly emotionless across the courtroom -- said she had considered telling a teacher about the alleged abuse. But she testified that her mother had directed her, "What happens in the house stays in the house.''
When asked if she remembered any times that Anthony had thrown himself on the ground -- as Barron repeatedly told police during two lengthy interviews, the girl responded, "No, he would never do that.''
She said Leiva "forced'' the other siblings to watch whenever any of the children were being punished.
The girl testified that the discipline handed down included kneeling in uncooked rice for a "long time,'' holding school books and weights above their heads, squatting against the wall, being told to wrestle each other and being forced to eat peanut butter sandwiches with hot sauce or to drink hot sauce if they didn't finish eating within a certain amount of time.
She said she also recalled Anthony being hit with a vacuum cord that she believed was wielded by her mother, and said that the boys would be locked in their bedroom and that they would have their faces pushed into their urine when they weren't allowed to leave their room.
The teen said she never questioned her mother about the punishment that was being handed down, saying that it was "probably because I was afraid.''
She said she still loves her mom, but feels that she's understanding a lot more as she gets older.
"Are you mad at her?'' the prosecutor said.
"Yes,'' the girl responded.
"Do you miss Anthony?'' the prosecutor asked.
"Yes,'' the 13-year-old girl responded.
"Does it make you sad?'' Hatami asked.
"Yes,'' the seventh-grader said.
In interviews with Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives after Anthony was taken first to Antelope Valley Hospital and then to UCLA Mattel Children's Hospital, Barron maintained that she "didn't do nothing.''
"He has been throwing himself. He has. I promise you ... He has been throwing himself around,'' Barron told investigators, maintaining that the boy had been "acting up and he threw himself (on the floor) because he didn't want to eat.''
"I know you guys are coming at me like, like I'm Gabriel's mom,'' she said, in an apparent reference to the case against Pearl Fernandez, who was convicted along with her boyfriend of murdering her 8-year-old son. "And it was nothing like that. I promise I did not hurt my son. I did not let nobody hurt my son. I promise you to God. You can give me a lie detector test. I did not do this.''
In a second interview with detectives, Barron acknowledged that she hadn't initially told them that Leiva had been at the house because she was "scared'' and didn't want to go to jail.
She maintained that Leiva "didn't touch Anthony'' and said that "no one did anything to him,'' but said Leiva wasn't supposed to be at her apartment because it is a low-income facility and had been threatened by the managers that she would be kicked out if anybody kept coming over.
When asked by Deputy District Attorney Saeed Teymouri about Barron appearing to be "hysterical'' and "stuttering'' at times during the audiotaped interviews with detectives, sheriff's Sgt. Robert Wilkinson said,
"It appeared that she was trying, in my opinion, to fake an emotion. I never saw any tears.''
Several first-responders testified Tuesday that the woman was not crying or hysterical as they tried to revive her son.
Sheriff's Deputy Brandon Vanarsdale testified that emergency personnel who were treating the boy appeared to be more upset than his mother was.
In his opening statement of the trial, Teymouri told the judge that Barron and Leiva tortured and abused Anthony for two weeks before his death, while an attorney for Leiva countered that his client should be acquitted of murder.
"Anthony Avalos graduated the fourth grade on June 7th, 2018, and for two consecutive weeks he was abused and tortured every single day culminating to when the first responders found his lifeless body on June 20th,'' Teymouri said.
The boy died early the next morning.
Teymouri told the judge that there had been multiple contacts with the county's Department of Children and Family Services dating back to 2014.
"She's been torturing her kids for a long period of time, and once defendant Leiva came into the picture it turned deadly,'' he said.
The prosecutor said the boy was already brain dead'' and had been lying on the floor in the family's townhouse "for at least a day, possibly more'' when Barron called 911 to seek assistance for the boy, and that the two "concocted a story that Anthony Avalos had injured himself.''
The boy had "new and old injuries -- literally from head to toe,'' the deputy district attorney said, showing a photo of the boy while he was alive and then in a video from the hospital in which some of his injuries were depicted.
Leiva subsequently acknowledged that he had the boy kneel on uncooked rice and admitted that he had rendered him unconscious for about five minutes just days earlier, according to the prosecutor.
Leiva's attorney countered that the evidence would demonstrate that there is "reasonable doubt'' involving the murder charge against his client.
Dan Chambers said the two major issues will be "a lack of intent to kill'' and the issues of "causation.''
The defense lawyer questioned the accounts of the boy's half-siblings, whose testimony he said has changed over time.
Chambers told the judge that many of the statements by the children are "inconsistent,'' saying that their initial statements "showed a lack of any actions on behalf of Mr. Leiva with respect to the treatment of Anthony'' and that "Mr. Leiva's conduct allegedly grew worse'' as the children underwent further questioning.
"Those inconsistencies in the evidence will be apparent and once we demonstrate that it will show that what the children claim they say Mr. Leiva doing is inconsistent with the medical evidence,'' the defense attorney said.
"This case is a case of severe abuse, but as to Mr. Leiva, it is not a murder,'' the defense lawyer told the judge.
Barron's attorneys reserved their right to make an opening statement when the defense begins its portion of the case.
Eyewitness News spoke with David Barron and Diuguid shortly after Destiny finished testifying and said a lot of the statements she made were surprising.
"Even though we kind of knew what happened, only they will know exactly what happened," said David Barron. "They know, they lived it."
David Barron and Diuguid feel their sister is responsible for participating in the abuse and for not stopping it.
"She has the same blank expression, even when Destiny and Junior are on the stand, she has no emotion," said David.
Barron and Leiva were charged in June 2018 with the boy's killing and were subsequently indicted by a Los Angeles County grand jury in October 2018. They remain jailed without bail.
Last October, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors formally approved a $32 million settlement of a lawsuit filed by the boy's relatives -- two of whom testified last week that they notified the county's Department of Children and Family Services about the alleged abuse. The lawsuit contended that multiple social workers failed to properly respond to reports of abuse of Anthony and his siblings.
The lawsuit cited other high-profile deaths of children who were also being monitored by the DCFS -- 8-year-old Gabriel Fernandez and 4-year-old Noah Cuatro, both of Palmdale -- to allege systemic failures'' in the agency.
City News Service, Inc. contributed to this report.