Crime

He murdered a 3-year-old girl, and now the judge has sentenced him to death

Christopher Cheary enters the Tulare County Superior Court for his sentencing. He had already been found guilty of murdering 3-year-old Sophia Acosta.
Christopher Cheary enters the Tulare County Superior Court for his sentencing. He had already been found guilty of murdering 3-year-old Sophia Acosta. lgriswold@fresnobee.com

Convicted murderer Christopher Cheary was sentenced to death Monday by a Tulare County judge for the killing of 3-year-old Sophia Acosta, also known as Baby Sophia.

Cheary, 26, was found guilty by a jury in November of first-degree murder, with two special circumstances of sexual penetration with a foreign object and torture.

Several days later, the same jury came back with a death-penalty verdict for Cheary. On Monday, Judge Joseph Kalashian upheld that choice.

On May 7, 2011, police were called to an apartment in Exeter at which Cheary, then 20, lived with his girlfriend and her two girls. Sophia was unconscious.

Sophia was taken to Kaweah Delta Medical Center and then Valley Children’s Hospital, where she died a few days later.

At the sentencing, defense attorney Angela Krueger referred to the Biblical book of Matthew and the philosophy of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in arguing for a sentence other than death.

But prosecutor David Alavezos said the death penalty was the appropriate punishment given the facts.

“This is what we call justice,” Alavezos said.

Kalashian said he had no choice but to uphold the death penalty.

“I took an oath when I took the job to follow the law,” he said. “I can’t nullify the penalty because of my personal views.”

Several of Sophia’s relatives addressed both the judge and Cheary, who showed no visible emotion.

“We will never see her go to school,” said Sherry Stone, an aunt. “We will never see her graduate. She will never get married and have children of her own. This monster has never shown one ounce of remorse.”

Trina Lopez, a great aunt, said Cheary took Sophia’s life “like a thief in the night.”

“As long as you are in prison and on death row you will have visits from your family,” she said. “We will have to visit her at the cemetery.”

Sophia’s grandmother Diana Coronado said the girl’s death put the family through “the worst kind of pain.”

“How dare you violate an innocent child,” she said. “You sealed your fate. May you rot.”

During the trial, the prosecution showed pictures of Sophia’s badly bruised body.

Cheary’s girlfriend Ericka Smith testified she went to Visalia that morning by bus to get him heroin, and left the girls with him. When she got back, the girls were asleep in a upstairs bedroom. She closed the door and went downstairs.

He smoked some heroin and they both smoked marijuana, she said. She heard a thud upstairs and went to check on it.

She found Sophia on the ground with her arm across her mouth, and she had vomited. Her eyes were in the back of her head.

Smith called 911 and went to a neighbor’s apartment for help. The neighbor came to the apartment and said at the trial that she saw Cheary go upstairs and bring down Sophia, naked and sopping wet.

She asked Cheary why the girl was all wet and Cheary told her, “he had to rinse her off,” neighbor Mary Ann Flores testified.

Smith was never charged.

Cheary appears to be the first person in California to be found guilty in a death-penalty case since the passage of Proposition 66 in November. The state Department of Justice said it is is not aware of any earlier case.

The proposition gives death-penalty defendants on automatic appeal and legal representation more quickly, and allows lower courts to hear the appeals instead of going directly to the state Supreme Court. But Tulare County District Attorney Tim Ward has said it’s still not clear if the appeals process will move faster in Cheary’s case.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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