Jury weighing case filed in boy’s Sunnyside death

March 26, 2013 

— After closing arguments Monday, a Yakima County jury began deliberating the fate of a 21-year-old Sunnyside man accused of fatally punching or beating his girlfriend’s 2-year-old son.

Juan Balverde Lopez is charged with second-degree murder in the death of Benjamin “Benji” Miron, who was fatally injured sometime the night of Aug. 24, 2010. Balverde was baby-sitting the boy as well as the boy’s 4-year-old brother and 7-year-old sister.

The jury deliberated for barely an hour before being sent home for the night. In addition to second-degree murder, the panel may also consider lesser charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter. The prosecution is also asking for sentencing aggravators due to the child’s vulnerability.

In closing arguments, deputy prosecutor Patti Powers recounted the boy’s extensive internal and external injuries and ridiculed the defendant’s claim that the boy’s older sister caused them while roughhousing.

Balverde, then 18, was baby-sitting the children while their mother was hospitalized in Toppenish for gallstones. The family lived in a home on Decatur Avenue with other people and kept to themselves in a small room.

“Only one person ever indicated that (the boy’s sister) jumped on Benjamin, and that was the man seated before you, Juan Balverde,” Powers told the jury, adding the boy’s injuries “reasonably inferred ... a beating.”

Focusing on the theme of intent, a crucial component of a murder charge, Powers argued a number of factors pointed to a murderous beating.

Among them: the difference in size between the defendant and the boy, who weighed only 30 pounds, the boy’s extensive injuries and the defendant’s admission to a police officer that he may have backhanded and punched the boy because he was tired and needed to sleep.

Powers also said even the defendant’s own expert said only once in his career had he seen a case in which injuries like those suffered by the boy had been inflicted by another child.

If convicted of the murder charge, Balverde faces a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. First-degree manslaughter carries a minimum of 6 1/2 years, while second-degree manslaughter is 15 months.

Balverde’s lawyer, Jeff Swan, cautioned the jury against a rush to judgment, accusing the prosecution’s experts and police of letting emotion “get the better of them” in search of a “monster.”

“Kids play around and sometimes accidents happen,” Swan said. “But that’s not a convenient answer, is it, because that’s not where our emotions want to take us.”

Without conceding his client caused the boy’s injuries, Swan nevertheless urged the jury to reject the murder charge on the ground there was no proof of intent to kill. The defendant did not testify.

“Science can’t tell you the who,” Swan said, “or the why.”

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