Tim Coke says he is satisfied with the maximum 20-year sentence his daughter’s mother received for allowing the toddler’s stepfather to beat the 2-year-old to death.
Victoria Pedraza, 23, of Drew County and formerly of Warren, was sentenced Wednesday to 20 years in prison for permitting the abuse that led to her daughter’s February 2012 death. Victoria’s husband, Daniel Pedraza, received a life sentence last month for murdering the toddler.
Coke, the biological father of Aubriana Coke, said Victoria Pedraza should have protected Aubriana, but he doesn’t believe she abused the toddler and he never knew her to be violent.
Victoria, who was initially charged with capital murder, a crime that carries a possible death penalty, pleaded guilty last year to permitting the abuse that led to her daughter’s death. After testifying for the state last month in Daniel Pedraza’s murder trial, the court set aside two days this week for Victoria Pedraza’s sentencing trial.
Because she had already pleaded guilty, the jury would only consider a sentence. For permitting the abuse, she could have received probation or a prison sentence of five to 20 years, the maximum allowed under state law for permitting the abuse of a minor.
Following two days of testimony and evidence, including a photo of the deceased toddler and a photo of Victoria’s badly bruised body, a Drew County jury deliberated just under an hour before returning with the 20-year sentence. See coverage of the first day of Victoria Pedraza’s sentencing trial here.
Victoria, a former high school cheerleader, homecoming maid and member of the Arkansas National Guard, testified Wednesday, describing her relationship with Daniel Pedraza as well as the systematic physical and emotional abuse to which she and the toddler were subjected, and the events that led to her daughter’s death.
The child was struck by a blow to the abdomen so hard that it caused extensive internal injuries, ultimately causing her death.
Victoria Pedraza met Daniel Pedraza during the summer of 2009 at Ft. Chaffee while they were serving in the Arkansas National Guard. She was a signal support systems specialist, setting up communications within a unit. Daniel was a cavalry scout. They became romantically involved in July 2011, when Aubriana was about 20-months-old, and moved in together the following month.
Daniel quickly became the disciplinarian in the home, punishing Aubriana when she failed to verbally respond in a manner he deemed appropriate, according to Victoria.
If Aubriana failed to sit or speak properly, he would deprive her of food, make her stand in what Victoria referred to as the “chair position,” or hold the “push up” position for long periods of time. She said Daniel beat her and Aubriana, forced them to eat from the floor, telling them that if they act like dogs he will treat them like dogs.
The abuse began when they lived in a camper outside her grandmother’s home in Warren and continued when they moved in with Daniel’s parents in Hamburg. She said she and Aubriana left Daniel’s parents’ home and moved in with a friend in Monticello to get away from Daniel. But, three weeks later, on February 14, 2012, she and Daniel moved into a mobile home on Old Highway 13 in Drew County. They were married three days later, on February 17. Ten days later, Daniel Pedraza killed Aubriana.
On cross-examination Wednesday, 10th Judicial District Deputy Prosecutor Crews Puryear questioned Victoria about the four different stories she told police following Aubriana’s death. He also pointed out all of the opportunities Victoria failed to take to get Aubriana away from Daniel Pedraza.
“So, you say you (moved in with a friend) as a step to get away from Daniel, but three weeks later you married him,” Puryear said.
“That was not by my choice,” Victoria said.
“So he forced you to marry him against your will?” Puryear asked.
“Pretty much,” she said.
“Tell me how that happened,” Puryear said. “Did he drag you to the courthouse? How does he do that?”
“He actually physically pulled me by my arm to his truck and we went to the courthouse and I got married with a black eye,” she said.
She said Daniel’s abuse of Aubriana increased when they moved into the mobile home.
“Why didn’t you take Aubriana to your grandmother’s house?” Puryear asked.
“I didn’t have any way to take her,” Victoria said.
“Did you have any way to call her and say ‘Come get Aubriana?'” Puryear asked.
“I didn’t have my grandmother’s number,” she said.
Pointing out that Victoria had an opportunity to seek help for Aubriana when she went to Walmart after Daniel delivered the blow that ultimately ended the child’s life, Puryear asked why she didn’t seek help then.
“You left the home after seeing your daughter get punched twice in the abdomen and went to Walmart?” Puryear asked.
“You didn’t do anything or inform anyone of this abuse?” Puryear asked.
“I was scared to death of Daniel,” she said. “I thought if I called law enforcement it would make things worse. Of course he probably would have went to jail, he probably would have got bonded out and he was coming right back. That’s the fear I had.”
“What about Aubriana’s safety?” Puryear asked.
“I feared that too,” she said. “Like I testified earlier, Daniel would hurt Aubriana to hurt me. He knew she was my weakness.”
“Why wouldn’t you do whatever you can to get her out of that home?” Puryear asked.
“At that time, I felt there was nothing I could do,” she said. “I felt powerless; helpless.”
“So, within a 4-week span you went from being able to move out of the Hamburg home and leave him, and in that four weeks you became powerless. Is that what you’re telling the court today?” Puryear asked.
“Yes, because in those four weeks things had progressed a lot worse than what they were before I left,” she said.
A psychologist later testified that Victoria suffered from battered women’s syndrome and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In her closing statement, Victoria’s attorney Sarah Swander, of Little Rock, reminded the jury of the abuse Victoria suffered at the hands of Daniel Pedraza. She brought out a large photo of Victoria’s badly bruised buttocks and legs, injuries she sustained during a severe beating with a belt two days before Aubriana’s fatal beating.
She said Daniel’s abuse of Victoria went beyond repeated physical abuse.
“It had an impact on her mental and emotional well-being,” Swander said. “She did not endure all of this unchanged. It affected the way she thought, what she did and what she felt able to do. She had limited resources. She did not have her own vehicle. She had a phone that Daniel provided her and that he was in total control of.
“Victoria pled guilty to permitting the abuse of a minor; Daniel pled guilty to murdering Aubriana,” Swander said. “Victoria failed to act… she didn’t set out to help or participate. She’s a victim.”
Swander said Victoria has been in jail for 498 days, since the day of Aubriana’s funeral. During that time, she said, Victoria has had to deal the with the death of her daughter.
“She sat in that witness-box and said ‘I take full responsibility,” Swander said. “She feels so bad but she has tried to extract from this horrible experience a life lesson. She said she doesn’t ever want to get in this situation again, doesn’t want to allow this to happen to any other child. She wants to be a contributing member of society. She wants to educate herself, train herself, and she wants to turn all of this around to something good and help other women and children get out of abusive situations.”
Swander asked the jury to show Victoria mercy and try to understand what she went through. “I would hope that you would give her a lesser sentence,” Swander said.
In his closing arguments, Puryear asked the jury not to lose focus of the victim. He said the defense tried to portray Victoria as the victim but the victim was Aubriana.
“Two-year-old Aubriana Coke is the victim,” he said.
“Victoria sat on the stand and said ‘I accept full responsibility, yet every chance she got she pointed to Daniel Pedraza,” Puryear said. “Then right after that she said she wanted to do something to help others not go through what she had gone through. She didn’t mention anything about helping others from going through what Aubriana went through.”
Puryear told the jury the defense wants the jurors to believe that Victoria was helpless but it was Aubriana who was helpless.
“Consider that in your sentence,” he said.
The jury returned with the maximum penalty allowed by law: 20 years. Victoria could become eligible for parole after serving one-sixth of that sentence and she gets credit for the 498 days she has already served in the county jail.
PEDRAZA CASE STORY INDEX
(in descending order beginning with most recent)
Jury selection for Pedraza trial starts Thursday (pretrial feature with photos)