A jury began deciding Thursday whether Maria del Rosio Alfaro should become the first Orange County woman on Death Row.
The jury can recommend a sentence of life in prison without parole for the 20-year-old Anaheim woman or send her to the gas chamber. If the jury rejects Alfaro's plea for mercy, she almost certainly will join two other women on Death Row, as no Orange County judge has ever gone against a jury-recommended death sentence.
Alfaro was convicted last week of stabbing to death 9-year-old Autumn Wallace, who was home alone after school, in order to eliminate the lone witness to a drug-related robbery.
The girl was at her family's Anaheim house on June 15, 1990, when Alfaro--an acquaintance of Autumn's older sister--gained entrance to the home by asking to use the bathroom. Alfaro told police that while "wired" on cocaine and heroin she took a knife from a kitchen drawer, lured the girl into the bathroom and stabbed her repeatedly. Goods taken from the house were sold for $250 to buy more drugs, Alfaro said.
Throughout the morning session, the mothers of Autumn and Alfaro sat less than two feet apart, while attorneys for both sides clipped color photographs to a bulletin board in front of the jury box to reinforce their arguments.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Charles J. Middleton's series of pictures began with an enlargement of a school photo of Autumn Wallace, and proceeded to photos of the ransacked house and the girl's body.
"I put the photographs up, but Rosie Alfaro did this," said Middleton, apologizing for the display. "It is not easy for me to stand up here and ask you to recommend a death sentence."
But the penalty is appropriate, he said, citing "brutality," "senselessness" and the "horrific" nature of the crime, in which Autumn was stabbed 57 times.
"Why did someone have to kill that little 9-year-old girl?" he said, and asked the jury to put aside the facts that Alfaro is a woman and a mother.
"Where is that maternal instinct that all children are precious?" he asked. "It's not in Rosie Alfaro."
When his turn came, defense lawyer William M. Monroe quickly removed the prosecution's pictures of the slain girl, saying "when I look at these photos, I cry."
Still clasping the school enlargement of Autumn as he began to speak, his voice breaking, Monroe said, "I have a 6-year-old. I cry when I see this little girl."
Monroe then tacked up pictures of Alfaro's four young children.
"Rosie Alfaro is not a girl who should die," Monroe said. The murder of Autumn Wallace is a tragedy, he said, but "killing Rosie Alfaro is not going to reverse that tragedy."
The death penalty should be reserved for "the worst of the worst" killers, Monroe said, such as Jeffrey L. Dahmer, the Hillside Strangler and the Freeway Killer.
When Alfaro went to the Wallace home, Monroe said, "nobody was supposed to be home, no one was supposed to get hurt."
Later in his remarks, Monroe replaced the photos of Alfaro's children with pictures of Alfaro's own childhood, recounting the disintegration of her family and her involvement with drugs and prostitution, beginning in her preteen years.
"Put yourself in the milieu of that barrio environment . . . the streets," Monroe said, in an explicit appeal to the middle-class jurors, whom he described as far removed from Alfaro's life experiences.
Earlier in the penalty phase, Alfaro had read from the witness stand a letter addressed to Autumn:
"I have a picture of you in my Bible, and every time I open it, I see your innocent face and I think of my boys and what I would do if something were ever to happen to them. . . . So please know that I am deeply and truly sorry, Autumn, and I will pay for the rest of my life for what happened."
Despite the apparent acknowledgment of her guilt, Alfaro maintained that an accomplice was responsible for more than 50 of the stab wounds. During Middleton's cross-examination, Alfaro repeated the scenario presented during the guilt phase of her trial, that she stabbed the little girl at the instigation of the man who drove with her to the house that afternoon. The accomplice was in the house at the time, Alfaro said, and at one point, was jabbing a knife against her back to force her to initiate the stabbing.
The same jury found Alfaro guilty last week of first-degree murder with two special circumstances that bring with it the possibility of the death penalty. The special circumstances were murder while committing burglary and murder while committing robbery. She was also convicted of burglary, robbery and using a knife in those crimes.
No other woman in Orange County has been exposed to the death penalty by going through the penalty phase of a murder trial since 1978, when the new statute went into effect, according to the district attorney's office.
However, Cynthia Lynn Coffman, who was sentenced to death in San Bernardino for a murder there, faces the possibility of a second death sentence for her part in the killing of a 19-year-old Huntington Beach college student in a trial that is now in progress.
Times staff writer Lily Dizon contributed to this report.