Christopher Cheary, 25, was found guilty Monday of first-degree murder with two special circumstance in the death of 3-year-old Sophia Acosta, his girlfriend’s child who was murdered five years ago in an Exeter apartment they shared.
Cheary could face the death penalty.
The Tulare County Superior Court jury of five women and seven men will return Wednesday to begin deliberations in the penalty phase to determine if he will be sentenced to death or serve life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The jury began deliberations Monday and came to a verdict after 5 1/2 hours of deliberations, including a lunch break. Besides finding Cheary guilty of murder, the jury found true two special circumstances of sexual penetration with a foreign object and that the crime involved torture.
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As the verdict was read, some in the audience cried out. Judge Joseph Kalashian threatened to have them removed from the courtroom and asked for quiet.
Cheary showed no obvious emotion as the verdict was read. He was led away right after the jury was dismissed.
Members of Cheary’s family were clearly distraught by the verdict and turned away reporters.
District Attorney Tim Ward was present in the courtroom for the verdict.
“Obviously, we’re pleased with the jury’s verdicts so far,” he said in the hallway after the verdict was read. “We are ready to proceed with the evidence for part two.”
Sam Coronado, Sophia Acosta’s great-grandfather, said he attended each day of the trial and every hearing of the case, including the preliminary hearing in which the evidence was first publicly presented.
“It’s a big relief” to have the jury reach a guilty verdict, he said. “It’s been five years and five months. The outcome is something we are looking forward to because it is terrible what he did.”
Coronado said he dissuaded others in the family from attending the trial so they wouldn’t have to see the evidence, including photographs of Acosta’s body.
On May 11, 2011, the girl was taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center and later Valley Children’s Hospital. She died a few days later. A coroner ruled that blunt force trauma was the cause of death.