Penalty phase begins in Christopher Cheary murder trial

VISALIA, Calif. (KFSN) -- Wednesday, Christopher Cheary's defense lawyer told jurors that her client's life is in their hands. She said it's their duty to learn as much about him before making an individual and moral decision about how he will die.

"Christopher Cheary will die in prison," Angela Krueger said. "The question is whether or not he will receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole, or death by the hand of man."

In the final phase of Cheary's murder trial, prosecutors are pushing for the death penalty, after he was found guilty of murdering, raping, and torturing his girlfriend's three-year-old daughter, Sophia Acosta, in May of 2011.

Assistant District Attorney David Alavezos called Acosta's mother, Erika Smith back to the witness stand Wednesday, where she said Cheary would hit her often, and choked her at least two or three times a week.

Two of Cheary's ex-girlfriends also testified to various forms of threats and abuse, though Shaina Howard claimed the bruises on her arm were just a result of horsing around with him.

"He told me he wanted to kill me and shoot my dad because my dad went over there all angry at his house," Howard said, referring to the time after she and Cheary broke up.

"And you told the officer that you saw the defendant hit Ms. Howard in the face?" Alavezos asked Rebecca Alcorn-Owlsey, Cheary's neighbor. Alcorn-Owlsey said yes.

Alavezos also called a jail inmate to the stand, who testified that Cheary threw feces at him at Bob Wiley Detention Facility, less than a year after he was arrested.

Cheary's defense team says their client has been locked up for nearly 2,000 days since he was arrested at age 20-- he's now 25. While they're asking the jurors to give Cheary a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole, prosecutors say there's a side to the story that hasn't been heard yet: Who Sophia Acosta was, and the impact she had on those around her.

"We haven't heard how her loss has affected those who remain," Alavezos said.

Some of that story was told on Wednesday, when one of Sophia's cousins said that Sophia was a happy and well-behaved child. She said Sophia loved to play with her many cousins, and who will always be missed by her family.

"Every day, every day we think about her," said Khristinea Torres.

The trial will resume on Monday, and the judge expects the penalty decision to get to jurors by that Wednesday.

Cheary won't be sentenced until after Thanksgiving.
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