The father of 3-year-old Sophia Acosta testified Monday that the loss of his daughter still haunts him five years after she died from injuries suffered at the hands of her mother’s live-in boyfriend.
Obie Acosta, Sophia’s father, was among the witnesses called to testify in the penalty phase of the Tulare County murder trial against Christopher Cheary, who could be sentenced to death.
Cheary, 25, was found guilty Nov. 14 of first-degree murder in the death of his girlfriend’s child, who was living with the couple in an Exeter apartment. The jury also found true two special circumstances of sexual penetration with a foreign object and torture.
On May 11, 2011, the girl was taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center in Visalia and later Valley Children’s Hospital. She died a few days later. A coroner ruled that blunt-force trauma was the cause of death.
Because of the special circumstances, Cheary faces either the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Tulare County Superior Court jury of five women and seven men that found him guilty has been hearing witnesses called by both the prosecution and the defense for the penalty phase.
Acosta, the girl’s father, who had split from the child’s mother, testified that he went to the hospital to see his daughter.
“I just remember sitting by her side, just holding her hand,” he said. “Later on they called me, said she was brain dead – there was no way of surviving it.”
Her organs were used in transplants.
Five years later, the death of his first-born child weighs on him, he said.
“It affects me a lot,” he said. “There are nights I can’t sleep … I have to keep myself busy … so I don’t get stuck on it.”
After the girl’s father testified, defense attorneys called Cheary’s mother, Laura Campanur, to the stand. She testified that her son was hyperactive as a child and took Adderall and Zoloft to calm him down so he could sit still in class, and took other medications when he was older.
She said her husband used illegal drugs and went to rehab twice. Their rocky marriage failed and she filed for divorce when her son was in eighth grade, she said.
Her son got failing grades in junior high and did not graduate from high school, she said.
He started smoking marijuana, and after he moved into an apartment as a teen with his older brother she learned he was using heroin, she said. At the time, she did not have custody, so it was hard to help him, she said.
Campanur said she loves her son and has stayed in steady contact with him for the five years he has been in jail, by telephone and visits.
“He is so affectionate,” she said. “I get a lot of my strength from him.”
Prosecutor David Alavezos read from a transcript of a telephone call that Cheary made from jail.
“I’m tired of sitting here with my hands crossed, looking like a scared little puppy,” Cheary said in the transcript.
A former teacher testified in his favor.
Jerrie Ogden of Stanislaus County said she was his teacher in Denair when Cheary was in eighth grade.
“Chris was always respectful and he was a very sweet person, always smiling, always a good sense of humor,” she said.