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San Antonio woman found guilty in starvation death of four-year-old stepson

Miranda Casarez
Dan Katz
Miranda Casarez took the stand in the punishment phase of her trial, sobbing at times and visibly shaking. She could face 99 years in prison.

A San Antonio woman has been found guilty in the starvation death of her four-year-old stepson.

After deliberating for just under an hour, the jury found Miranda Casarez guilty of injury to a child with serious bodily injury by omission.

The charge carries a sentence of five to 99 years. The sentencing phase of the trial has begun.

Her stepson Benjamin Cervera died on Aug. 17, 2021.

After declining to take the witness stand during the trial, Casarez did testify during the punishment phase, during which a jury hears about mitigating circumstances before it determines a sentence.

Casarez wept and visibly shook as she recounted finding the four-year-old gasping for air on the day of his death. She said she wanted to kill herself after the boy died. She was briefly a patient at a pyschiatric facility in the aftermath.

Her words were at times indiscernible.

Prosecutors said Casarez withheld food and water from her stepson and played video in court of the four-year-old crying and begging for food. Prosecutors showed multiple images of bruises on the boy's body as well.

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.

The defense, led by San Antonio attorney Anthony Cantrell, argued that Casarez was "not a monster" but a loving mother who was doing everything she knew how to do for the boy.

His witnesses challenged the idea that Cervera had died from malnourishment at all, with one forensic pathologist saying he saw "no positive signs" of starvation. Dr. William Anderson testified he believed a cerebral edema caused the death. The defense had also posited that undiagnosed Type-1 diabetes had played a role.

Cantrell told the jury the bruises came from the self-harming behavior of a boy with undiagnosed autism, which he supported with testimony from an expert who said it was a "high likelihood" and with documents from Child Protective Services, which Cantrell read into the record, that asked for an examination.

Chief Bexar County Medical Examiner Kimberly Molina shot down theories posed by defense's expert witnesses.

Much of the case may have been decided in jurors' minds with the testimony of "BC," Benjamin's older brother.

The now-12 year old testified that Casarez abused Benjamin and that she made him eat hot sauce and hand sanitizer as punishment.

He said she would throw the boy in the air only to intentionally let him fall. He added that his stepmother would not feed his brother when the rest of the family was fed, and that they placed locks on food cupboards and the fridge.

Casarez would tell the jury after they found her guilty that she did not abuse the boy and that she loved him.

Cantrell cross-examined the boy twice, pointing out inconsistencies in his story. The defense attorney presented a CPS investigation document in which Benjamin and BC were interviewed by law enforcement — they made no outcry of abuse and said they felt safe and that they ate well.

If Cervera had been seen by CPS workers, law enforcement, and medical doctors in the weeks leading to his death, why had they not removed him for starvation if it was so obvious, the defense asked.

The defense's arguments proved unconvincing to the jury.

Cervera weighed 28 pounds at the time of his death.

Benjamin's father, Brandon Cervera Sr., was also arrested and charged in the case. His trial is pending.

The trial will resume Thursday morning with more testimony from Casarez, and likely a sentence from the jury.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org