In a bid to save his client's life, a lawyer for Marco Barrera said Thursday the Pacoima man has admitted to fatally beating two of his children and burying them in the Angeles National Forest, but did not torture them.
"We are not here trying to prove that Mr. Barrera is innocent. We are trying to show that Mr. Barrera is guilty of no more than second-degree murder," public defender Arthur Braudrick said in his opening statement in the murder trial.
Barrera, 38, is charged in the deaths of 5-year-old Ernesto Esquivel in February 1998 and 2-year-old Guadalupe "Lupita" Esquivel a few months earlier.
He faces the death penalty if he is convicted of first-degree murder with the special circumstance of torture. For second-degree murder, he could be sentenced to 50 years to life in state prison, Braudrick said.
To win a first-degree murder conviction, the prosecutor must show the killings were premeditated.
The coroner's report takes 2 1/2 pages just to describe the bruises, scars, abrasions and ulcers on Ernesto's body. Thirteen ribs were found to have been broken, and the boy had suffered several fractures of his arms.
Lupita died of a cracked skull and had internal bleeding in the brain, her internal chest wall was bruised, and she had an upper-arm fracture, according to the autopsy. Both children were malnourished.
Children's Aunt Also Charged
Ernesto's severely beaten body was found on March 6, 1998, buried in an 18-inch-deep grave. It was discovered when a sheriff's deputy stopped to investigate what he thought was an abandoned car.
The deputy found Barrera and one of his teenage sons, who led him to the burial site on Lopez Canyon Road, about two miles north of the Foothill Freeway, where a few family members were still gathered.
Nearly a month later, authorities learned from one of her siblings that a younger sister also had been beaten to death and buried near Little Tujunga Road. They recovered her body, which had been covered in acid before burial.
The children's maternal aunt, Maria Ricardo, 31, also went on trial, charged with child abuse and being an accessory to murder. Her lawyer, Larry Baker, told the jury he plans to introduce a battered-woman's syndrome defense.
Baker said Barrera took Ricardo against her will from Mexico when she was 14 and raped, sodomized and impregnated her. For 10 years, Barrera would order Ricardo into the car as many as four times a month and take her to the mountains and beat her, Baker said.
Baker said she once escaped as far as Mexico City, but was met at the bus station by Barrera, who had taken a plane there.
She was physically abused until she "was completely, totally, 100% physically, mentally and psychologically subservient to Mr. Barrera," Baker said.
The children's mother, Petra Esquivel, 39, pleaded no contest to child endangerment last August and agreed to testify against Barrera and Ricardo. She is serving four years in prison.
Some of the surviving children also are expected to testify in the courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn McNary.
McNary described Barrera, a part-time gardener and street vendor, as an abusive father who forced his young children--14 of them by his wife and her sister--to sell corn on the street until 10 p.m.
The family tree is so confusing that McNary brought a chart listing all the children, some of whom share the same first names but have different mothers.
Children Lived in Converted Garage
Barrera fathered eight children, including his two victims, with his wife, and six more with her sister.
At the time of their deaths, both children lived with Barrera and Ricardo in a converted garage in Pacoima. Esquivel lived about two miles away in a small room behind a house. Baker said Barrera kept his wife and her sister apart.
Lupita's fatal beating began after she wet her bed and cried for her mother, McNary said. In response, Barrera "does what he always does, he beat her," she said. He also flung her against a wall, McNary said.
After Lupita was unconscious for a few hours, Barrera instructed his 14-year-old son, Jose, to take the 2-year-old to her mother and to say Jose had caused the injuries, McNary said.
Esquivel did not seek medical attention for the child or call police because she feared that Jose would be blamed, McNary said. Lupita, who weighed just 18 pounds, died that night.
With Lupita gone, McNary said, Barrera turned his fury on Ernesto, beating him with electrical cords, belts, shoes and fists. The boy, who weighed just 35 pounds, was hogtied so he couldn't get food at night, McNary said.
The boy finally died after Barrera threw him against a wall, McNary said.