Ana Maria Cardona, the Miami mother twice sentenced to execution for the torture and murder of her toddler son known as “Baby Lollipops,” is no longer facing Death Row.
Prosecutors on Friday announced they will no longer seek the death penalty against Cardona for the horrific murder of Lazaro Figueroa in 1990.
The decision was made one year after the Florida Supreme Court, for the second time, threw out Cardona’s death sentence and conviction, granting her a new trial more than two decades after the boy’s battered body was found discarded in the bushes of a Miami Beach home.
Cardona, 55, now faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder at a third trial.
“We are determined to go yet a third time and seek justice for who we called Baby Lollipops,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said.
Her reprieve comes as Florida lawmakers in the coming weeks prepare to craft a new capital-punishment law to conform with a series of court rulings that left the state’s death-penalty litigation in limbo.
In January 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Florida’s capital sentencing system violated the Constitution because judges, not juries, meted out the ultimate punishment. For decades, Florida jurors had only had to give a majority recommendation on the death penalty.
The Legislature quickly passed a new law that required 10 of 12 jurors to agree on a death sentence. But the Florida Supreme Court soon overturned the law, saying it violated a defendant’s right to a unanimous jury verdict.
Cardona’s sentence was overturned in January 2016 for a different reason. Justices ruled that while there was plenty of evidence to convict Cardona, a prosecutor went overboard during her closing argument by repeatedly calling for “justice for Lazaro,” arguments that “improperly inflamed the minds and passions of the jurors.”
But the tumult over Florida’s death penalty played into the state’s decision to waive execution as punishment. Questions about whether a jury could unanimously agree on the death penalty were clear — in Cardona’s 2010 trial, only seven of 12 jurors agreed on the death penalty. At her first trial, jurors recommended death by an 8-4 vote.
Said Fernandez Rundle: “Unfortunately, as cases get old and stale, we’re nowhere near an expectation of an unanimous verdict.”
Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Steven Yermish, one of Cardona’s lawyer, said it was the right call.
“Through two trials, the state never got close to what would be required now — a unanimous vote,” Yermish said. “I want to thank the state attorney for making what we believe is the correct decision, to not seek the death penalty.”
The death of 3-year-old Lazaro was huge news in the early 1990s in South Florida. The boy, weighing just 18 pounds and badly beaten, was discovered dead in the bushes of a Miami Beach bayfront home in November 1990. Police detectives, at first unable to identify the boy, called him “Baby Lollipops” because of the design on the T-shirt he was wearing.
Soon, Miami Beach homicide detectives arrested Cardona, a cocaine addict who had lived in a Miami efficiency with her two other children and lover, Olivia Gonzalez Mendoza.
Gonzalez was the key witness at the 1992 trial, testifying that her lover bound and tortured the boy for months before using a baseball bat to fatally beat the boy. Cardona was sentenced to death, becoming the first woman in Florida to be sent to Death Row for the murder of her own child.
One decade later, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction because prosecutors failed to disclose some of Gonzalez’s statements about the crime. Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for her role in the case and served nearly half of a 40-year prison sentence, was freed in 2008.
Gonzalez was not called to testify at the 2010 retrial.
Instead, prosecutors relied on witnesses who described Cardona’s erratic lifestyle and abusive behavior toward Lazaro, plus excruciating medical examiner testimony and photos that showed months of physical abuse — a mangled arm, skull fractures, a cheek burn.
Also key: Cardona’s statement to police, in which she admitted to dumping the boy’s body in Miami Beach after, she said, he fell and hit his head on a bed. Defense lawyers argued that Cardona was coerced into the confession — and shifted the blame to a mentally disabled teenage babysitter who confessed, then recanted, to the killing.
After the conviction, defense lawyers contended that Cardona’s life should be spared because she was raised in Cuba by a mother who showed her no love, was sexually abused as a child and later found Christianity while behind bars.