Sophia Acosta . (Tulare County District Attorney’s Office)

A man who continues to maintain his innocence in the sexual assault and murder of a 3-year-old girl is now on California’s death row.

Christopher Cheary, 26, was sentenced this week, nearly seven years after the death of Sophia Acosta, the daughter of Cheary’s ex-girlfriend.

Cheary, convicted in November after a lengthy trial in Tulare County in California’s Central Valley, sat stoically during his sentencing hearing on Monday as the girl’s family addressed him in court, according to the Fresno Bee. Diana Coronado, the child’s grandmother, told Cheary that he’d put the family through “the worst kind of pain.”

“How dare you violate an innocent child,” Coronado said, the Bee reported. “You sealed your fate. May you rot.”

Sherry Stone, the girl’s aunt, said Cheary deprived the family of seeing Sophia go to school, graduate, get married and have children of her own.

“This monster has never shown one ounce of remorse,” Stone said, according to the Fresno Bee.

Sophia was pronounced brain dead on May 11, 2011, four days after she was taken to a hospital suffering from severe head injuries, bleeding above and under her skull, and bruises all over her head, torso and buttocks. Other injuries pointed to sexual assault, officials said.


Christopher Cheary. (Tulare County District Attorney’s Office)

Prosecutors said the incident happened on May 7, 2011, in an apartment in Visalia, Calif., where Sophia lived with her mother, Ericka Smith, her little sister, and Cheary.

According to authorities, Smith had gone out to buy heroin earlier that day, leaving Cheary alone with her children.

At that time, Smith and Cheary, who is not the children’s father, had been living together for about five months.

The two smoked heroin after Smith returned three hours later, prosecutors said.

At some point, Cheary told Smith that he heard some noise, so he checked on the two girls twice, prosecutors say. He said he found Sophia lying on the floor and not breathing after he checked on the children the third time. He then took off the child’s clothes and placed her in the tub to try to revive her, Cheary told authorities.

Smith, who was not charged in Sophia’s death, testified during the trial last year that she and Cheary had a fight that morning shortly before she left to buy heroin, according to ABC affiliate KFSN. She said Cheary was abusive at times, choking her, holding her against a wall and throwing picture frames at her. Other times, the abuse was verbal, Smith said.

“Belittling me, secluding  me, making me feel worthless,” she said.

Kathleen Murphy, a physician who examined Sophia at Valley Children’s Hospital in Madera, about 50 miles from Visalia, could not keep her voice from shaking when she testified about the child’s injuries. “I’d like to forget, but you don’t forget seeing children who’ve been tortured,” Murphy said, according to the KFSN.

Cheary’s defense team argued that the child was not sexually assaulted, tortured or murdered. Her death, they said, is a medical mystery.

The trial lasted for about three months. Cheary was convicted on Nov. 14 of murder with the special circumstances of sexual penetration and torture.

The jury also recommended that Cheary be sentenced to death.

During the sentencing hearing Monday, Cheary’s attorney, Angela Krueger, requested that the sentence be reduced to life without the possibility of parole. She quoted the Bible, Shakespeare and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to make her case, the Visalia Times-Delta reported.

“Hate begets hate; violence begets violence,” she said.

Krueger didn’t return a call from The Washington Post on Tuesday.

“Murder tears apart the fabric of our society, affecting many — from each juror that had to review graphic evidence that people should not be forced to see, to the witnesses who have to relive their experiences once again in the courtroom,” Assistant District Attorney David Alavezos said in a statement after the sentencing hearing. “For certain crimes the only just punishment is the ultimate punishment.”

Judge Joseph Kalashian of Tulare County said he is not in favor of the death penalty, but his judicial oath required him to follow the jury’s recommendation. “I can’t nullify the death sentence because of my personal beliefs,” he said, the Times-Delta reported.

Cheary did not speak during his sentencing hearing, but in a letter he gave to the Visalia Times-Delta, he called the prosecutors corrupt and suggested that his fight isn’t over.

“You won for now,” he wrote.

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