After three hours of deliberations, a Van Nuys jury convicted a North Hollywood woman Tuesday of fatally beating her 4-year-old niece.
The jury found Arcelia Chavez, 48, guilty of the second-degree murder of Maria Isabel Cervantes and of assaulting a child younger than 8, resulting in death.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Leland B. Harris is to sentence Chavez on Oct. 10. The first-time offender faces 25 years to life in prison.
Chavez, the single mother of five children, gained custody of Maria Isabel after the girl’s mother was killed in a gang shooting in November 2000. The child’s father abandoned the family before she was born.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Maureen Green said Chavez began hitting Maria Isabel on Sept. 27, 2001, after the child spit out food. The beating continued in the bathtub, where Chavez delivered what Green described as “karate-like chops” to Maria Isabel’s small body, causing the child to repeatedly hit her head on the bathtub.
After the beating, Chavez built an altar in her bedroom, lighted candles, dressed the girl in a white dress and stockings and prayed, Green said.
Authorities testified that Maria Isabel died sometime before midnight.
The next day, Chavez’s daughter discovered her mother with the dead child in a bedroom and urged her to call authorities.
Chavez later carried Maria Isabel’s body, still in the white dress and wrapped in a pink blanket, into the North Hollywood police station.
According to testimony, she told deputies that the girl had drowned in the bathtub. An autopsy, however, showed that Maria Isabel died of blunt-force trauma.
“She didn’t have to die,” Green said in her closing argument. The girl could have survived the injuries if she had received immediate medical attention.
According to Chavez’s early statements to police, she said she never wanted the child.
“I would prefer that the little girl be with her grandmother because she had two little brothers in Mexico,” Chavez told authorities. “I don’t know why she was left with me.”
In Chavez’s defense, attorney Dennis G. Cohen said he tried to show jurors “a woman who just totally lost it that day.”
Describing his client as a peaceful woman who just snapped, he asked the jury to sentence Chavez to the lesser crime of manslaughter.
“This case is the ultimate tragedy,” Cohen said. “It’s one family.”