A Florida mother on Wednesday was convicted for a third time of brutally abusing her toddler before fatally beating the boy who became known as "Baby Lollipops" in a case that riveted Miami decades ago.
Jurors found 56-year-old Ana Maria Cardona guilty of murder and aggravated child abuse in the killing of 3-year-old Lazaro Figueroa, whose emaciated body was found hidden in bushes in Miami Beach in November 1990.
The boy was beaten throughout his short life and was starving to death, weighing just 18 pounds. His body was covered in bumps and bruises and cigarette burns. His skull had been fractured, and his left arm was permanently bent at a 90-degree angle. The medical examiner called it child torture, according to trial testimony.
"After suffering years, months, days of continuous abuse by her, under her watch, Lazaro inevitably withered and died. And lay in the dirt until his little heart stopped beating," prosecutor Reid Rubin said in a closing argument. "It was only a matter of time before he wound up dead because of her."
Cardona was twice sentenced to death in previous trials. After her first trial in 1992, Cardona became the first woman in Florida history to be sentenced to capital punishment for killing her own child. But both convictions were overturned by the Florida Supreme Court, leading to this third trial.
She faces a life prison sentence this time because prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty again.
Trial evidence showed that Cardona had other children she did not abuse. The reason for Lazaro's suffering, Rubin said, was that his father had been a drug dealer who was slain by rivals -- and with his death, Cardona lost a lavish lifestyle she had been enjoying until then.
"She became angry and spiteful, and she took it out on an innocent young child who became her personal whipping boy. It escalated, more and more," the prosecutor said. "Lazaro died because his mother didn't love him."
Cardona testified in her own defense that her female lover, Olivia Gonzalez, was responsible for Lazaro's death. Trial evidence showed that Gonzalez and Cardona fled to central Florida after the boy died, even enjoying a trip to Disney World, before their arrests.
Defense attorney Steve Yermish said in his closing argument that Cardona was a poor mother and may have taken actions against Lazaro that amounted to child abuse. But he said she did not kill her son.
"I can only assume that you are angry at Ana Cardona. And you have every right to be. Ana was a lousy mother. She failed as a mother. But you can't decide this case because you or I or anyone is angry at Ana for her failures," Yermish said. "The charge of aggravated child abuse may have been proven. The charge of murder has not."
Unable to identify him initially, officers called the boy "Baby Lollipops" after the T-shirt he was wearing. It took more than a month for investigators to learn Lazaro's identity and track down the two women. Their big break came when a neighbor who had occasionally cared for Lazaro recognized him from police flyers.
Gonzalez testified in previous trials, but not this time. She served 14 years in prison for her role in Lazaro's mistreatment when living with Cardona. She was never charged with killing him.
Cardona told investigators after her arrest that Lazaro hit his head falling out of bed, and that she hid his body hoping not to lose custody of her other children. This week, she said that was not the truth.