The short life and brutal death of Baby Brianna
LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Brianna Lopez would be 6 years old now had her death at 6 months not revealed perhaps the most brutal child-abuse case in state history and prompted a major change in New Mexico law.
But as the July 19 anniversary of her death nears, some say the changes have not gone far enough.
The story of Baby Brianna is a hard one, but it is the ugly reality of child abuse. Violent family members caused her death while others hid what they knew was going on.
“They raped her; they beat her,” said District Attorney Susana Martinez who prosecuted the case. “She had bite marks on her face, cheek, head, arms, legs, chest, torso, everywhere.
“Literally bruised from head to toe, from the top of her head all throughout her body all the way to the big toe on her right foot.”
She was beaten and raped by her own family.
“Massive bruising on the head, and then her little fingers were lacerated, toes,” said Detective Lindell Wright who was the first officer on the scene.
Brianna died on July 19, 2002. When Wright saw her body at a hospital, he remembers one thought going through his mind: “I’ve got a lot to do.”
Later, when he had time to look back, “I cried my eyes out. It will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Investigators said Brianna’s mother and father, Stephanie Lopez and Andy Walters, and her uncle Steven Lopez were responsible.
The night before, Steven and Andy threw Brianna to the ceiling, then let her slam to the ground. And they had raped her time and time again.
Brianna’s mother had bitten her child. The source of the other bruises remains a mystery.
“Bite marks throughout her body; there were old and new,” Wright said. “She had skull fractures that were old and new.
“She had bleeding on the brain both old and new which means she had been abused physically her entire life.”
And while all the abuse was going on another uncle and a grandmother knew but never reported it or tried to stop it.
Martinez won convictions and maximum sentences for the three abusers.
“It tests you to the point you’re not sure you can speak,” Martinez said. “You’re afraid that the emotion will take over.”
For some Martinez’s successful prosecution only highlighted shortcomings in the law.
When Baby Brianna was killed a person who committed intentional child abuse resulting in death faced a maximum of 18 years in prison. Her case brought on a major change.
“Eighteen years for the life of a child?” State Sen. Mary Jane Garcia of DoÃ±a Ana said. “I thought it was absurd.”
It took Garcia three years of trying, but she changed the law to make the crime punishable by a life sentence.
“If the judges continue to sentence to the maximum under the new law, the law is sufficient,” Martinez said. “But if a judge doesn’t sentence them to the maximum to try to give some sort of deterrent effect to the rest of the community we’ve lost.”
Both Martinez and Garcia said more needs to be done to punish people like Brianna’s grandmother and uncle who fail to report abuse.
“Those two individuals knew she was being abused,” Martinez said. “She was full of bruises that were old: green, brown, yellow-colored.
“Had they reported it early, had they and insisted on that child not being abused maybe we would have never had her death take place.”
For failing to report the abuse the three were sentenced to 30 days in jail. The maximum is one year.
“I think perhaps we ought to try to make it five years at least,” Garcia said. “I would go for something like that, and I would certainly try it.”
However Wright said it’s not just the law that needs to change.
“I think a lot of proactive still needs to happen as far as young parents need to have proper education, proper support systems,” Wright said. “I feel a lot of young parents are struggling by themselves.
“They don’t have anywhere to turn, and it is the chemistry of child abuse.”
Brianna’s story still brings much pain to the people in DoÃ±a Ana County who came together after her death, paid for her casket and burial and claimed her body when no one else would.
“The community felt that Baby Brianna could be their child, their granddaughter, their daughter, their niece,” Las Cruces resident Edgar Lopez said.
Baby Brianna is now locked up in a cage built around her grave by her family to keep the community who loved her so much out. It is a mess, unkempt and full of trash.
“They were asked, and they said they just wanted to be left alone and they wanted Brianna to be left alone,” Martinez said.
Inside is a cherub with a finger raised to her lips. Some believe it’s a message.
“My first thought was, ‘Let’s not talk about what’s occurred here,'” Lopez said.
Yet the community vows to not let that happen. People still leave flowers here and have built another marker.
The people of this community will never forget Brianna and neither will the detectives, social workers and prosecutors who worked on her case.
Wright said they never found pictures of Brianna in her
home, not a single image of her playing, laughing or smiling. He wanted to know what she looked like alive.
“Before they started the autopsy and her little face was lying on a white sheet and I thought she looks asleep,” Wright said. “So I just took the picture.”
The picture has since transformed with the bruises erased and the bite marks taken away. The scars have disappeared.
It’s the Brianna this community likes to remember.
“There’s a photograph of her to carry on of her little life,” Wright said.
The picture hangs on the wall next to Susana Martinez’s desk.
“It’s a reminder, of course, of why we do what we do,” Martinez said. “If you forget you’ll either become calloused or you will become Jell-O.
“You can’t do this job well unless you are in the middle, and that’s just a good reminder why we do it.”
Brianna is never far from the detective either.
“It drives me to work harder to prevent, to be a voice for every child of abuse,” Wright said. “That’s what it does.”
The cop, the prosecutor and the politician agree it’s everyone’s job to report child abuse. Anyone who sees, or even suspects a child is being abused, needs to step in.
CREDIT: KRQE | Reporter: Kim Vallez