Court reverses conviction, orders new trial for Miami mother in ‘Baby Lollipops’ child murder

Ana Maria Cardons, in trial in Miami-Dade in 2010.
Ana Maria Cardons, in trial in Miami-Dade in 2010. Miami Herald

Ana Maria Cardona, the Miami mother twice sentenced to execution for the torture and beating death of her toddler son known as “Baby Lollipops,” is getting another trial.

The state’s high court on Thursday again reversed her conviction and death sentence for the murder of 3-year-old Lazaro Figueroa, a crime that horrified South Florida in the early 1990s.

The Florida Supreme Court agreed that there was enough evidence to convict Cardona and sentence her to death. But the high court nevertheless ruled that a prosecutor’s closing arguments in 2010 — including repeated calls for “justice for Lazaro” — were so over-the-top that Cardona deserved a new trial.

“As we have stated for decades, we expect and require prosecutors, as representatives of the state, to refrain from engaging in inflammatory and abusive arguments, to maintain their objectivity, and to behave in a professional manner,” the court ruled in a 6-1 decision.

Cardona, 54, will now be moved from a prison in Ocala to a Miami-Dade jail to await her third trial.

“In my heart, I always knew this case was coming back,” said Cardona’s lawyer, Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Edith Georgi. “She deserves a new trial.”

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement: “While we are saddened by today’s Florida Supreme Court decision in the Ana Cardona murder case, we are prepared to retry this homicide. The cruelty involved in young Lazaro Figueroa’s murder deserves our fundamental commitment.”

In 2010, Cardona was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Lazaro. The boy, badly beaten and weighing just 18 pounds, was discovered dead in the bushes of a Miami Beach bayfront home in November 1990. Unidentified at first, police dubbed him “Baby Lollipops” for the design on his T-shirt.

Miami Beach police arrested Cardona, a cocaine addict who had lived in a Miami efficiency with her two other children and lover, Olivia Gonzalez Mendoza.

In 1992, Cardona was convicted and sentenced to death after Gonzalez testified that her lover beat, tortured, bound and hid the boy inside the efficiency.

The Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2002 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.

At the second trial in 2010, 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 raised the possibility that a babysitter might have been to blame.

In Thursday’s opinion, the Florida Supreme Court wrote that prosecutors “presented sufficient evidence” to support the guilty verdict and the death sentence.

But at closing arguments, the prosecutor repeatedly asked jurors to deliver “justice for Lazaro.” The judge, Reemberto Diaz, repeatedly overruled defense objections.

“These arguments improperly inflamed the minds and passions of the jurors,” the high court wrote.

The high court also ripped a prosecutor for calling the defense’s strategy “diversionary tactics” and saying Cardona herself was a “drama expert.”

“The prosecutor compared her to a character on a telenovela, which was a racially charged comment that served no purpose other than to ridicule Cardona,” the court ruled.

That prosecutor who asked for “justice for Lazaro” during closing arguments, Kathleen Pautler, is no longer with the State Attorney’s Office and now practices in New York. She could not be reached for comment.

The case was also tried by senior prosecutor Susan Dannelly, who retired from the office, and now is an assistant state attorney in St. Augustine. She declined to comment.