Ana Maria Cardona, accused of torturing and murdering her infant son known as “Baby Lollipops,” twice went to trial and remained silent before the Miami juries. Both times, she was sent to Death Row.
In her third trial, Cardona decided to tell her version of events to jurors, taking the stand Monday to weep and repeatedly insist she never laid a finger on her 3-year-old son, Lazaro Figueroa, whose battered and bloodied body was discovered in the bushes of a Miami Beach home in November 1990.
Instead, Cardona laid the blame on her former lover, Olivia Gonzalez, who she claimed whisked the boy away to stay in some unknown home with a mysterious “friend” for two months before his death — where he presumably met his demise.
“Olivia Gonzalez Mendoza killed my son! Olivia Gonzalez Mendoza killed my son!” Cardona cried as she finished her testimony on Monday.
Throughout her testimony in a case that has riveted South Florida for more than a quarter of a century, Cardona cast herself as the victim, broke and unable to care for her three children, including 3-year-old Lazaro. She said her only choice was to live with the jealous and possessive Gonzalez, who tormented them and forced her into a sexual relationship.
“Anytime she would touch me, I would become nauseous,” Cardona claimed. “I had a relationship with her because of the necessity of having a roof over my head with my children.”
Yet, Cardona could not explain why she told police detectives back in 1990 that she had given away Lazaro to a mysterious woman in a restaurant. “I don’t really even know why I said that lie,” Cardona admitted.
And Cardona acknowledged she told police — on an audio-recorded statement — that the boy hit his head after a fall from a bed and she discarded his body in Miami Beach. But Cardona claimed she was only telling police what they wanted to hear, hoping they would not take away her remaining children.
“Doesn’t it say on the tape that you hand-delivered and dumped the child on North Bay Road,” prosecutor Reid Rubin asked, showing jurors a transcript of her interview with police.
“It says that on the tape — but it’s not true,” Cardona protested.
Hours of heated cross-examination often devolved into Cardona delivering long and breathless screeds, repeatedly calling Gonzalez a “monster” and “murderer” – while loudly arguing with Rubin. Five different Spanish-language translators tried to keep up as the testimony devolved into near shouting, frequent objections and several sidebars. At one point, Cardona defiantly told jurors she had twice been sent to Death Row but was fighting to clear her name.
Cardona took the stand one week after Miami-Dade prosecutors began presenting testimony to jurors in her third trial for murder and aggravated child abuse. The search for Lazaro’s identity and killer captivated South Florida in 1990. Detectives called him Baby Lollipops because of the design on his T-shirt.
After her first trial in 1992, Cardona was sent to Death Row, the first woman to be sentenced to die for killing her own child. The Florida Supreme Court later overturned the conviction because prosecutors failed to turn over statements made by Gonzalez, Cardona’s lover and the star witness in the trial.
A second conviction from 2010 — and a second death sentence — were overturned because a prosecutor made “inflammatory” statements during the trial’s closing arguments.
In the latest trial, prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty and Gonzalez is playing a prominent role, even though neither side is calling her to testify (she did 14 years in prison for her role and has been free since 2008). Prosecutors again sought to portray Cardona as a malicious cocaine-addled mother who directed her rage at the infant Lazaro. Jurors last week heard testimony from neighbors and acquaintances who recalled Cardona’s abusive treatment of the boy in the late 1980s and 1990 — and his pitiful physical state.
“You know very well they were lying,” Cardona testified of those witnesses.
Jurors also heard a reading of previous testimony from former Miami-Dade Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Hyma, who died last year but testified at both of Cardona’s earlier trials.
Extremely malnourished, Lazaro weighed only 18 pounds, about half of what he should have weighed for his age. Repeated beatings had torn away the tissue between his lips and gums, making eating, drinking and talking painful.
His left arm was permanently bent at a 90-degree angle. His head had been bashed repeatedly, severing his brain stem, and his diaper, soiled and held together with duct tape, had caused an infection.
“This is child torture, in my opinion,” Hyma said in 2010.
Cardona, however, insisted that the boy never had any injuries when he was with her.
“During the time my son was with me, he was never abused or maltreated,” Cardona testified.
The trial is expected to wrap up Tuesday before Circuit Judge Miguel de la O.