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Defense to present case in trial over starvation of 4-year-old San Antonio boy

Anthony Cantrell speaks privately with his client Miranda Casarez
Paul Flahive
Texas Public Radio
Anthony Cantrell speaks privately with his client Miranda Casarez

After four days of compelling and heartbreaking testimony, Miranda Casarez’s attorneys have a big job ahead of them.

The defense’s strategy in the child death case seems best described as ‘everything you have heard about Miranda Casarez so far is wrong.'

Defense attorney Anthony Cantrell has peppered state’s witnesses with questions hoping to blunt the impact of prosecutors and some state witnesses. They have so far portrayed the woman as an abusive and cold-hearted caregiver more concerned with her husband’s support than the welfare of Benjamin Cervera. They say she knowingly starved the boy to death.

Cantrell’s questions — and asides — also suggested how he hopes to turn the tide.

Benjamin Cervera died from starvation on August 17, 2021 and the manner of death was ruled a homicide by the Bexar County Medical Examiner's Office. Cantrell will spend Monday attempting to dismantle that case — posing instead that Cervera had a chronic undiagnosed disease like Type-1 diabetes that ultimately killed him.

The boy was allegedly never screened for the disease.

Cantrelle on Friday was able to extract a concession from one state expert that that it was possible the child could have had the disease that causes extreme hunger, thirst, weight loss and increased urination.

But Dr. Kimberly Molina, Chief Medical Examiner, was firm in her determination of homicide under cross examination. Cantrell would ask questions implying that reports from police had biased her determination of homicide.

Cantrell’s questions to Molina Friday began his case. Instead of a child who had thrived outside of the home and declined inside of it, Cantrell portrayed a boy who had always struggled with food and had been on the slighter side — often in the lowest 5th percentile for weight — and that his parents tried to tell doctors.

The defense’s statements that Cervera was chronically underweight for “most of his life” were often rebuffed by Molina.

“I have no evidence of that,” she said, “Because all of the records prior to July show that he is growing and developing appropriately.”

Based on the documents in court, Cervera’s “precipitous” weight loss occurred after July of 2021.

When asked if it was possible that he was eating during this time period, Dr. Molina said she wouldn’t be surprised, but that the boy “wasn’t eating enough.”

The defense asked if the homicide determination could be impacted by evidence that Cervera could eat all he wanted but still lose weight. Dr. Molina said that if evidence existed, it may have an impact — but she had seen none.

Prosecutors at one point re-showed images from the home of cabinets and a fridge with combination locks on them.

“There were locks on the pantry in Benji's home. To you, does that indicate that a caregiver is giving the child anything that they want to eat?” said Michael Villareal, Bexar County assistant district attorney.

Benjamin Cervera, 4, was 28 pounds when he died of malnourishment. Stepmother’s attorney said the story is far more complex and that the family had sought medical help before.

Cantrell attempted to reframe the image of his client as an active and engaged caregiver. He cited the number of times the boy had been brought to the doctor in the past three months of the boy’s life. He stated the parents weren’t trying to hide his weight issues. Doctors noted the boy was failing to thrive.

“None of those doctors said,‘Hey, you’re looking awful. You're starving to death. You need to go to the hospital right away,” said Cantrell.

Individual doctors had not seen the boy regularly, according to the records. The background of Cervera eating yet losing weight was not observed by physicians but was provided by parents

“Saying something doesn’t make it true,” said Villareal.

Cantrell will spend much of Monday fleshing out that theory with multiple experts scheduled to testify.

Some of the most damaging and in Cantrell’s words “prejudicial” pieces of evidence are videos of Benjamin Cervera begging for bread and other food items. Cantrell has said these videos were taken at the direction of the state’s Child Protective Services. The family had an open case against them for weeks leading up to the boy’s death. He will likely attempt to reframe them as documentation not that Casarez was attempting to starve the child, but was hoping to show CPS that Cervera had an inexhaustible hunger.

The defense will also need to counteract the testimony of Cervera’s now 12-year-old brother identified as BC in the trial. BC told police that Casarez abused his little brother, dropping him on his head intentionally, depriving him of food, and at times making him eat things like hand sanitizer and hot sauce.

According to those in the courtroom, the effect of the testimony on the jury was palpable.

While Cantrell did cross examine the child, he may recall him on Monday. Though cross-examining a 12-year-old boy again poses risks to the defense as well.

The trial is expected to conclude on Wednesday.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org