For the third time, a Miami jury has convicted a mother for the 1990 savage torture and murder of the child known as “Baby Lollipops.”
Ana Maria Cardona was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse for the 1990 death of her own son, 3-year-old Lazaro Figueroa. Cardona was immediately sentenced to life in prison, but not before she heard stern words from the judge – and then herself delivered an emotional outburst.
“I don't think you will be meeting Lazaro in the afterlife. Your actions were monstrous. My mind recoils at the hellish existence you put Lazaro through that last year of his life,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Miguel de la O told her.
“There are wild beasts that show more empathy for their offspring than you showed Lazaro.”
Cardona stood up and, as she had for more than two decades, cast herself as the victim.
“I didn’t kill my son! I didn’t torture my son,” Cardona cried in Spanish. “Maybe you don’t believe me. You don’t feel my pain. Nobody could love my child more than me!”
De la O, who stressed Cardona received a fair trial, responded resolutely: “I don’t have any doubt the jury got this right.”
Two other juries had previously convicted Cardona, 56, who was twice sent to Death Row. But the Florida Supreme Court overturned each of the convictions and prosecutors declined to seek the death penalty in the third trial.
The jury deliberated less than four hours in convicting Cardona, whose mouth fell open in disbelief before burying her face in her palms.
The brutality of the murder shocked South Florida. The boy’s emaciated and battered corpse was discovered in the bushes of a home in a well-heeled Miami Beach neighborhood. Detectives looking to identify the child called him Baby Lollipops because of the design on his T-shirt.
Investigators soon arrested Cardona, who had fled with her lover and two of her other children to the Orlando area after the boy’s body was dumped.
Prosecutors sought to depict Cardona as a cocaine-addled mother who had grown used to a lavish lifestyle as the paramour of a drug dealer, the baby’s father. But when the man was killed, Cardona blew through her remaining tens of thousands of dollars, then bounced around from home to home, living off the generosity of others while harboring rage toward the child — a symbol of all she lost, prosecutors said.
“She took it out on an innocent young child who became her personal whipping boy,” prosecutor Reid Rubin said.
At trial, jurors heard from a host of friends and acquaintances who testified that Cardona treated the boy badly, often leaving him in the care of others, starving and hitting him. And the most crucial evidence was medical — evidence of a litany of injuries to the severely malnourished child who weighed just 18 pounds.
He had been repeatedly beaten, so badly that his arm was permanently bent at a 90-degree angle and his teeth were missing. The tissue between his lips and gums was gone. He had been beaten repeatedly, suffering a skull fracture from a blow that severed his brain stem, jurors heard.
“From the tip of his toes to deep inside his brain, that child was tortured and abused,” Rubin told jurors.
Jurors rejected Cardona’s own testimony. In a weeping and an often combative performance on the stand, Cardona denied mistreating her son and laid the blame on her former lover, Olivia Gonzalez Mendoza.
The two women bounced around homes with Lazaro and Cardona’s two other kids, finally living at a small efficiency in Miami. Cardona claimed that the home’s owners would not allow a third child, so Gonzalez gave the child to an unknown “friend” who had him for the two or more months before his death.
Cardona repeatedly called Gonzalez a “monster” and “murderer” who coerced her into a sexual relationship by giving her and her children a place to live. “She was in an abusive relationship she viewed as inescapable because she was being provided for,” defense attorney Steven Yermish said.
Gonzalez, who pleaded guilty and was the star witness at the first trial in 1992, served 16 years of a 40-year prison sentence. Neither side chose to call her as a witness in this trial.
In the end, Cardona could not escape some damaging evidence.
In 1992, she gave conflicting stories about what happened to the boy, first saying she gave him away to an “elegant woman” who approached her in a Hialeah cafeteria. Then, in an audio-recorded interview with detectives, Cardona admitted leaving Lazaro in the bushes, but said he was alive and merely injured after hitting his head during a fall.
Cardona, on the stand Monday, swore she only repeated back what detectives wanted her to say, hoping they would allow her to keep custody of her surviving children.
Then there was the physical evidence. The injuries had been inflicted over the course of months, jurors heard, long before Cardona claimed the child had been whisked away by Gonzalez. “That doesn't happen overnight,” Rubin said, pointing at a photo of Lazaro’s tiny body, ribs protruding from his chest. “That took months. A long time. Years. He was with her. And yet, she got him no medical attention.”
And there was a damaging slip of the tongue. On the stand, Cardona admitted she “hugged” Lazaro and sang him happy birthday when he turned 3 — but that date was just two weeks before the boy was found murdered, placing him squarely in her custody.