The death penalty trial of Christopher Cheary, accused in the sexual assault and blunt-force trauma death of a 3-year-old girl, started Monday, more than five years after the toddler was found dead.
Cheary, 25, is accused of first-degree murder in the death of Sophia Acosta at an apartment building in Exeter. He committed sodomy, torture and lewd acts, making it a capital case, the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office said.
A jury of six men and six women is hearing the case before Judge Jospeh Kalashian. There are seven alternate jurors.
On the afternoon of May 7, 2011, Exeter police went to an apartment building on the 800 block of West Visalia Road after getting a call from a neighbor that a child reportedly was not breathing.
Paramedics found her lifeless on the floor of the apartment where she lived with her mother, Erika Smith, and her mother’s boyfriend.
The girl was taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center, then flown by helicopter to Valley Children’s Hospital. She never regained consciousness and died May 11. Her organs were harvested.
A few weeks later, Cheary was arrested in Stanislaus County following an investigation by Exeter police.
Proscutor David Alavezos told jurors during opening statements that Smith and Cheary had an argument and Smith left for Visalia, leaving Sophia and a younger sister with Cheary, and later returned.
After she returned, she soon went over to a neighbor’s apartment and asked for a ride to the hospital because Sophia wasn’t breathing. The neighbor called 911 and went to the apartment.
Circumstantial and physical evidence links Cheary to Sophia’s death, including semen found on a bedskirt in Sophia’s room, a condom wrapper, unusual actions and differing stories told by the defendant, he said.
“He later admitted he lied,” Alavezos said.
The girl was bleeding from her anus and the autopsy showed lacerations to the girl’s anus, she said. She had bruises to her back, buttocks and head, he said.
Cheary used heroin, he said.
But defense attorney Angela Krueger started her opening by challenging the prosecutor’s case against Cheary.
“There was no rape, there was no torture, there was no murder,” Krueger said.
The prosecution has said there was significant blood coming out of Sophia’s anus, “but at the apartment, there was no fresh blood,” she said. “If there were anal lacerations, there would be blood in the apartment.”
At the hospital, the girl was bleeding from several places and the medical evidence will show the girl may have suffered from a blood-clotting problem, she said.
She died of lack of oxygen to the brain because she had blood clots, she said.
“It’s rare, but children do get blood clots,” Krueger said. She had massive irrerversible brain swelling, she said.
As for Cheary’s DNA, “they found none of him on her or her on him,” she said. “There was no DNA of Mr. Cheary anywhere where it shouldn’t have been.”
The small amount of his sperm found on a bedskirt is explainable from living with his girlfriend and does not link him to her death, she said.
Police missed the condom wrapper on several searches, she said. It was never checked for fingerprints, she said.
Cheary told police a story the girl’s mother told him to tell, she said.
She admitted Cheary was using heroin and had smoked it with his girlfriend, she said.
Neighbor Mary Ann Flores said Smith pounded on her door and was hysterical and wanted a ride to the hospital because Sophia wasn’t breathing.
She went to the apartment and Cheary brought down a lifeless body from the second floor.
“She was nude. She was sopping wet,” Flores said. When she asked why she was wet, Cheary said. “because he had to rinse her off.”
Cheary tried CPR on the girl, but “to me she was already dead,” Flores said.