A jury convicted a 14-year-old boy Thursday of killing his baby sister, rejecting claims she was fatally injured in a fall and favoring arguments he shook her because she interrupted his violent video game.
The panel deliberated less than two hours before convicting Crystian Rivera of first-degree murder in the death of 9-month-old Linda Beletzuy.
The parents are accused of neglect and prosecutors say they share in the responsibility for the death.
She died Aug. 19, three days after she was hospitalized. Her injuries included a fractured skull, swelling of the brain and bleeding around the brain.
“I think we were all quick to agree that it was abuse and not an accident,” said juror Erika Hernet, of Choctaw.
Defense attorneys argued during the nearly two-week trial that the death was a tragic accident and the girl was injured when she fell off a bed in the family's Oklahoma City apartment and landed on her head.
“He couldn't prove it was the bed,” said Hernet, the mother of two young children. “That argument didn't seem reasonable.”
The boy bowed his head but showed little emotion when the verdict was read in the courtroom of Associate District Judge Richard W. Kirby.
“It's hard for him to conceptualize, at 14, everything that's happened,” said Cesar Armenta, one of Rivera's attorneys.
Jurors, including Hernet and Penny Matapene, said they cried while deciding Rivera's fate and felt sympathy for the defendant and his family.
“It was hard,” Matapene said.
The judge set a Nov. 30 court date to adopt a treatment plan for the boy, who was prosecuted as a youthful offender and will avoid prison if he complies with a program administered by the office of juvenile affairs.
Rivera could be released within 12 months if he completes treatment, prosecutors said. But if he fails to complete his treatment plan or commits another crime he can be sent to prison for life.
“Basically, he's being given the chance to rehabilitate,” Assistant District Attorney SuAnne Carlson said.
Rivera, then 13, was playing the game “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” authorities said. The warfare-based game is rated for players 17 and older.
During a police interview played for jurors, Rivera admitted shaking the girl after she hit her head on a bed railing and began to cry. He told a detective he shook the girl to calm her down and then set her on the floor.
“We had other evidence that corroborated that he picked her up and swung her and caused her head to hit a hard object,” Carlson said.
Rivera, the video showed, repeatedly denied harming the girl. He told the detective he spent most of the day playing a video game online while the girl sat by his side or played on the floor, and acknowledged getting frustrated when the girl distracted him and his player was killed.
Defense attorney Michael Johnson said the detective lied to get a confession by telling Rivera doctors needed to know how the girl was hurt in order to keep her alive.
“There is no evidence that he caused this,” Johnson told the jury during his closing argument. “The state should not have ever accused him.”
Johnson declined to comment outside the courtroom.
A battery of doctors, including a pathologist for the state medical examiner's office, testified the girl's injuries were caused by “abusive head trauma” and not a fall from a 3-foot-high bed.
Testimony from a radiologist who treated the girl was especially compelling, the prosecutor said.
“He was extremely emphatic that the bleeds and the skull fracture were caused by someone picking up the child and slamming her head against a hard object,” Carlson said.
Hospital photos shown during the trial revealed contusions on the girl's chest and bruising on her legs and arms. Prosecutors argued the marks were caused by the defendant; Rivera's attorneys said they were caused by staff at the two hospitals where she was treated.
Parents await trial
Prosecutors alleged the girl was injured while she and her 4-year-old brother were left in Rivera's care for more than six hours on Aug. 16, 2011, while her parents were at work.
The parents, Carlos Beletzuy-Lopez and Linda Walleska Beletzuy are awaiting trial on child neglect charges.
District Attorney David Prater called Rivera the product of “deficient parenting skills,” and blamed the child's death on the mother and father. He called it “completely unnecessary and avoidable.”
“They believe that parking a 13-year-old in front of a violent video game and placing that 13-year-old as the caretaker of a 4-year-old and 9-month-old siblings was appropriate,” Prater said. “The shared responsibility for the death of this 9-month-old baby falls directly on the parents' shoulders.”
The mother declined to comment outside the courtroom. The father said he didn't believe his son injured the girl and would leave her with the boy again if given the chance.
“Yes,” Beletzuy-Lopez said. “He's a good kid.”