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Wails of a child fill courtroom as trial begins in 'starvation' case 

Miranda Casarez
Paul Flahive
Miranda Casarez

Benjamin Cervera’s wails filled a Bexar County courtroom Tuesday afternoon.

About 10 videos were shown of the boy begging for food. Off camera in those videos, his stepmother Miranda Casarez was heard, sometimes narrating how the boy was being bad.

His wails were heard for 12 minutes on one video. In another, the boy ate white bread off the floor. In another video, the boy eats his own diaper, with feces on it.

When Benjamin Cervera was outside of his home, prosecutors said he could gain weight, he was potty trained, and he was thriving. When he was with his stepmother and father, they said, the child regressed to wearing a diaper. He lost weight and ultimately died of malnutrition.

On Aug. 17, 2021, the child died.

The trial of Casarez began on Monday. The child's father, Brandon Cervera Sr., was also indicted in the case and will be tried at a later date.

'Covered in bruises'

In his opening statement, Bexar County Assistant District Attorney Michael Villareal called Cervera’s stepmother a “monster” who didn’t feed the boy.

“What this case is about is the cold, painful, slow starvation of Benjamin Cervera, in part by the hands of the defendant, Miranda Casarez,” Villareal said.

The child was only 28 pounds when he died. The jury was shown pictures of the boy’s bruised body, which hospital staff noted was “covered in bruises,” according to a state document.

Casarez was indicted for causing serious bodily injury to the child by omission, and she faces up to 99 years in prison.

In court, the boy’s biological mother, Erica Flores, looked on. A black t-shirt with her son’s face and “Benji” emblazoned on it sat in her lap.

Anthony Cantrell, Casarez’s attorney, did not give an opening argument, reserving it for the beginning of the defense's case.

Casarez pleaded not guilty, and throughout the opening questions of the state’s witnesses, Cantrell attempted to paint a more complex portrait of the situation — pointing to potential developmental problems related to the child because he was born premature.

It wasn't just about a boy not being fed, he argued. “It's just misleading to the jury for the state to characterize it, that my client is withholding water or nutrition when we have evidence to show that he was [fed],” said Cantrell when trying to get videos of the boy groaning and begging for food barred from being shown.

Cantrell said the videos didn't capture that the boy had just been fed — that he largely ate just bread — and they did not want to give him any more bread. Cantrell pointed out to a witness that the cabinets filled with food, and it was mentioned that Casarez bought the family as well as Benjamin tacos the morning of his death.

After dropping other children off at school, Casarez told investigators she returned home and fell asleep. When she awoke, she found the boy unresponsive, with what one witness later described as “mucus-y blood” coming out of his mouth.

'Very small for his age'

Julie Senter, a neighbor, said she saw Casarez coming out of her apartment with the now limp child in her arms. Casarez put the boy in the car and started a phone call while waving down cars for help at her Eisenhower Road apartment complex.

Senter testified that Casarez was on the phone with who the neighbor assumed was the boy’s father or a loved one and hadn’t called 911. She followed Casarez’s car as they transported the boy to the hospital.

“I would think helping her child would have meant calling 911,” said Senter when asked if she saw Casarez helping Cervera.

Casarez ended up pulling over and calling 911 herself at the corner of Broadway and Josephine Street, as Cantrell illustrated through his questions.

She was advised to give the boy CPR and to wait for an ambulance, which she did. When San Antonio police detectives arrived, they observed Cervera’s body.

“[His legs] looked very thin. Very small for his age. But, you know, I'm not a doctor, so I couldn't say certain things about him, but in my in my opinion, at that time, I thought he was malnourished.” said Lawrence Saiz, an SAPD homicide detective.

Saiz testified that in his interview with Casarez, she showed him videos of Cervera hitting himself and one of him on the day he died.

“I want bread. I want bread. I want bread,” cried Cervera on the video as he rode in the car earlier on the day of his death. It was one of several videos of the boy begging for food.

'He's not hungry'

Casarez told investigators the boy had an obsession with bread. She said he would regularly self-harm by poking his own eyes and banging his head when he didn’t get it.

“He’s not hungry. I would try to give him snacks. He’s always wanting bread,” she told an investigator in a video recorded interview that Saiz showed to the jury. “He literally ate a whole loaf of bread.”

Bexar County medical examiners found only pepper seeds in his digestive track, Saiz testified, despite Casarez telling him the boy ate a whole loaf of bread the night before.

“He stays up all night crying,” she said, describing that the boy had gone a month crying late into the night.

She said he would get up and sneak food. They installed locks on the fridge and cabinets. One video showed the boy crying in his room and then starting to rip up and eat his diaper. The jury was also shown videos of the boy begging for pizza. His small body appeared emaciated.

“I don’t know what was wrong with him,” she said, crying to the detective.

Casarez said that she tried to tell her husband that there was something wrong with the boy. But she previously testified that the caregiving for several children had been left to her. Her husband, Benjamin’s father, would just come home and then go out with his friends, she said.

“She spent a lot of time talking about how he was a bad child,” Saiz testified. When asked if she had cried at any time about the death of Cervera, Saiz responded “no.”

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org