Through its witnesses, Daniel Pedraza’s defense team portrayed the 24-year-old Arkansas Army National Guardsman as a good man who did a bad thing, a man deserving of a second chance.
Tenth Judicial District Prosecutor Thomas Deen, through the state’s witnesses, presented an entirely different picture: a cruel man who subjected his 2-year-old stepdaughter to extreme disciplinary measures, water torture and beatings, the final one causing her death.
A jury of eight women and four men would decide which picture was more accurate. Was there enough good in Daniel Pedraza to merit him a second chance or was his crime so heinous, so sadistic, that he deserved to spend the rest of his life in prison?
Daniel Pedraza was born into poverty in Mexico where he lived with his parents and three siblings in a one-room house with a dirt floor and no indoor plumbing. When he was two or three years old, his family crossed the border into the United States and ultimately began a better life in Ashley County.
After graduating from Hamburg High School, Pedraza joined the Arkansas National Guard and spent eight months in Iraq as a gunner on a Humvee transporting UN officials and dignitaries. He returned home with some “drinking issues”.
Defense witnesses at Pedraza’s sentencing trial this week described Pedraza as a good soldier. Jailers in Ashley County, where he has been held since his arrest last year, described him as a good inmate and talented artist. His sister testified that he returned from Iraq with a drinking problem and she once had to talk him out of killing himself.
Lee Nimmer, a part-time police officer for the Hamburg Police Department who served 23 years in the National Guard, testified that he has known Pedraza since he was eight or nine years old.
Nimmer said he has always liked young people and neighborhood kids would often visit his home. He took them fishing and played basketball and football with them. One of those kids he spent a lot of time with was Daniel Pedraza, a kid he remembered being smart, respectful, and easy to get along with. He believes he may very well have been an influence on Pedraza’s decision to join the National Guard.
“I have the utmost respect for him,” Nimmer said. “He was a good kid. He wasn’t mouthy. He never did talk back and he always listened…. He was just an outstanding kid. Still, right now, I think the world of him.”
On cross-examination, Nimmer said he was aware that Pedraza had been charged with the death of his 2-year-old stepdaughter but didn’t know he pleaded guilty.
“If I were to tell you that he pleaded guilty to beating a 2-year-old girl to death would that change your opinion of him as a fine young man?” Deen asked Nimmer.
“No sir, I still think he’s a fine young man,” Nimmer said.
“How many children would he have to murder before it changed your opinion of him?” Deen asked.
Nimmer said he didn’t see him kill the child so he doesn’t know if he murdered her or not.
“He admitted it. It came out of his own mouth,” Deen said. “This is a sentencing hearing. He has been convicted of first-degree murder. Did you know that?”
“No, I did not know that,” Nimmer said.
Earlier that morning, Victoria Pedraza, wearing a white jailhouse uniform, took the witness stand and described the events that led to the death of her 2-year-old daughter, Aubriana Coke.
Testifying for the state in exchange for a deal in which she pleaded guilty to permitting the abuse that led to her daughter’s death, Victoria described the systematic physical and emotional abuse the toddler was subjected to.
Seated directly in front of her, sandwiched between his team of lawyers at the defense table, was her husband and Aubriana’s stepfather, Daniel Pedraza, who only two days earlier, escaped a possible death sentence by pleading guilty to first-degree murder. Because Daniel Pedraza pleaded guilty to a lesser offense, there would be no trial, only a sentencing hearing. The jurors would hear evidence to determine what sentence they should recommend: 10 to 40 years or life in prison.
Victoria Pedraza said she 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.
For example, 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, sometimes as much as an hour.
She said Aubriana never questioned Daniel about the punishment. “If Daniel told her to do something, she did it.”
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. But it became more intense in early 2012, Victoria said.
When they moved into their own home on Old Highway 13, north of Monticello, Aubriana was beaten, deprived of sleep and food, and subjected to water torture, according to Victoria.
“He would hit her on top of the head with a belt… he would put her in the bathtub and hold her head (face up) under running water, and sometimes wouldn’t allow her to go to sleep at night,” she said.
“Sometimes,” she said, “he would make me and her eat off the floor. He said if we acted like dogs we needed to be treated like one. He wouldn’t allow us to use silverware. We had to eat with our hands (with the plate on the floor).”
She said he referred to her daughter as a “brat”, a “little b—h”, and “white trailer trash.”
“Did you think it was odd for a man who had just got into your life to be dictating these things to your daughter?” Deen asked.
“Yes sir,” Victoria said.
“Did you take that up with him?” Deen asked.
“Tell us about that,” Deen instructed.
A lot of times, she said, Daniel would beat her when she objected to the way he disciplined Aubriana. “I’ve been hit with a belt. I’ve been slapped. I’ve been punched. I’ve been kicked. I’ve been choked. I’ve had a knife to my throat. He’s hit me in the head with a bat and he’s drug me by my hair,” she said.
“Why would any woman put up with that?” Deen asked. “Why not take the child and leave?”
“I was scared of Daniel,” she said. “He had threatened my life many times and he would tell me he had nothing to lose by killing me.”
She said she didn’t feel like she had a place to go because he wouldn’t allow her to talk to her family.
On February 24, 2012, the Friday night before Aubriana died, Daniel beat Victoria with a belt. She said Daniel told her that she had “looked at him wrong” and he made her go into the bedroom and strip then began beating her with a belt, forcing Aubriana to watch.
“After he beat me, Aubriana sat beside me and I was in the fetal position and she was wiping my tears away and saying ‘mama, don’t cry,’ because she knew crying made him angry.”
The jury saw photographs of Victoria’s badly bruised buttocks, legs, arms, and back, taken the following week after she and Daniel Pedraza were arrested.
The jury also saw a cord that Victoria said Daniel used to alert him while he was sleeping. “He wouldn’t allow (Aubriana) to go to sleep,” she said. “He would make her stand up and he would wake up periodically in the night to see if she was sitting down. That night, he saw that she was sitting down so he made her get in the closet and he tied that rope around her waist and had it draped over the rod and he had (the other end) tied to his wrist so if she fell down he would feel the tug on his arm (and wake him from his sleep).”
The incident with the cord occurred the Friday night Daniel beat Victoria with the belt, according to Victoria.
The following day, Daniel went to his National Guard drill in Crossett, leaving Victoria and Aubriana home alone until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.
Asked why she didn’t leave when she had the opportunity to do so, she said she didn’t have a car and Daniel told her not to use her cell phone to call anyone.
“I was so paranoid that I would think he was down the road watching to see if I was going to leave or if somebody was going to come,” she said.
She said Daniel’s abusive behavior resumed Sunday morning. He sent Aubriana to stand in the “timeout corner” because she did not respond to him in the manner in which he expected. Sometime later, he called her into the living room and asked her a question. When she didn’t answer correctly, Daniel hit her in the stomach, according to Victoria.
“She fell down and she got right back up and he told her ‘b—h, go back to timeout, I don’t feel like dealing with you right now,'” Victoria said.
Later, he went into the room where Aubriana was in timeout and he whipped her bare bottom with a belt, Victoria said.
The next time Daniel entered the room, he discovered Aubriana had urinated on the floor. He punched her in the stomach with his fist, causing her to fall to the floor, according to Victoria.
Daniel put Aubriana back in timeout and instructed Victoria to keep an eye on her to make sure she was standing correctly in timeout while he took a nap, she said.
When he woke, she said he instructed her to rub a frozen chicken and ice on Aubriana’s body where he had beaten her with a belt. “As I’m doing that, she throws up,” Victoria said. “He comes in and says she stinks where she peed and threw up and that’s when he had her get in the bathtub.”
While in the bathtub, Victoria said, Daniel held Aubriana’s head, face up, underneath a running faucet and used his fingers to pry open her mouth. Aubriana bit his finger and he hit her in the mouth, shoved her down into the bathtub, and hit her again with his fist, according to Victoria.
Aubriana was lying in the bathtub gasping for air, Victoria said.
“He told me to ‘get the b—h out of the bathtub’, dry her off and get some clothes on her,” Victoria said.
She said he then instructed her to take Aubriana to the kitchen where he placed some heated tomatoes on her stomach.
“He also took a raw egg and put holy water on it and rubbed it on her body then cracked the egg and put it in a cup of water,” she said. “He told me it was something done to bless and cleanse the body.”
One of Daniel’s sisters testified later that while growing up the family was extremely poor and could not afford traditional medical care; they relied on natural home remedies like those Daniel used on Aubriana.
After administering the home remedies, Victoria said Daniel made Aubriana get up and walk around.
“He told her the reason she was cold was because she wasn’t walking around and her blood wasn’t circulating,” Victoria said. “So he made her get up and walk down the hallway and around the living room. She was stumbling and he would kick at her and push her. She would be hunched over, obviously in pain.”
After awhile, Victoria said, Daniel instructed them to go to bed. Aubriana threw up several times during the night before they slept.
The following morning, Aubriana was weak and her breathing was shallow. Daniel called his mother, who told him to rub alcohol under Aubriana’s nose, according to Victoria.
Her breathing didn’t improve.
“I held her in my arms and she took a deep breath and she didn’t let it out and so I shake her and I tell Daniel ‘Oh my God, Daniel, she’s not breathing,'” Victoria said.
She said she began performing CPR on Aubriana and told Daniel they needed to call 911. “‘And tell them what?'”she said he asked before going to the kitchen and returning with a knife.
“He tells me, ‘if that little b—h dies, I might as well kill you too,'” Victoria said. “And I tell him to kill me later, just help me, please.”
She said Daniel then took over, doing CPR on Aubriana, while she called 911.
By the time paramedics arrived, Aubriana appeared to be lifeless and a doctor at Drew Memorial Hospital told the Pedrazas there was nothing that could be done for for Aubriana.
Deen asked Victoria if she was truthful in her first statement to police and medical personnel. She said she was not.
“Tell the jury what you told the paramedic,” Deen instructed.
“I told the paramedic that Aubriana fell off the dock at Lake Monticello and she had fell onto some rocks and that’s how she sustained her injuries on her stomach,” Victoria said.
She said she came up with the story between the time she called 911 and when the ambulance arrived. She said Daniel agreed to it.
“Had he put away the knife at this point?” Deen asked her.
“I believe so, yes. I think it was back in the sink.”
She said she came up with the story to satisfy Daniel and “buy enough time to see her put away.”
“When you say ‘put away’ do you mean to see your child buried?” Deen asked.
“Yes sir,” she said.
“You were arrested before that though, weren’t you?” Deen said.
Victoria Pedraza was arrested the night of March 1. The following day, she asked to speak to police.
“I didn’t go into great detail about what happened but I let them know that Aubriana was punched by Daniel,” she said.
“Why didn’t you tell them the other details about the water and the food and the punishment positions?” Deen asked.
“I was still scared that somehow Daniel would find out that I was telling on him,” she said. “And, I’ve never been in trouble before and I didn’t know when to ask for an attorney or anything like that. I figured if I gave them vague details they would see that I didn’t have no part in harming her.”
Eventually, she said, she realized Daniel could not harm her because he was jailed in Ashley County and she was jailed in Drew County.
“I felt safer in jail than I had in the past few months out in the free world,” she said.
Victoria, originally charged with capital murder along with Daniel, worked out a deal with the state. She pleaded guilty to permitting the abuse that led to her daughter’s death and agreed to truthfully testify at Daniel’s trial.
She faces five to 20 years in prison and/or a fine not to exceed $15,000. With meritorious “good time” she could be eligible for parole after serving one-sixth of her sentence. If she failed to cooperate with the state and testify truthfully, the capital murder charge was back on the table.
On cross examination by Daniel’s lead attorney Jeff Rosenzweig of Little Rock, Victoria admitted that she could have called someone for help, including a friend who worked for the Department of Human Services or her National Guard support system. She also admitted that Daniel allowed her to drive his truck to Walmart after he abused Aubriana.
“So, what you’re telling us is that your daughter is being hit on, and belted, and everything else by this man, and
you take the keys to the truck and you go shopping,” Rosenzweig said.
“To go to Walmart,” she said.
“He gave you the keys to his truck?”
She said she didn’t know where the police station was located. She said Daniel had told her not to call anyone and instructed her to come right back.
She also admitted on cross examination that she had given five statements since her arrest and each one was different.
Tenth Judicial District Deputy Prosecutor Crews Puryear called on the state’s key medical witness, Dr. Stephen Erickson, who described Aubriana Coke as a text book case of child abuse.
Erickson, the chief deputy medical examiner, testified that he could not briefly sum up what happened to Aubriana. “This is a very complex case,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to sum up what happened to this child in one sentence. So, the first thing you have to know is she died from multiple blunt force injuries. She had numerous bruises, scrapes, abrasions and one laceration… on multiple parts of her body: the head, chest, abdomen, back, buttocks and the extremities.”
Primarily, he said, there was one major injury but that one injury fell within the scope of a number of other injuries.
“Aubriana Coke died within the spectrum of all these injuries but only one single blow stopped her life and that was the blow to the abdomen,” he said. “That blow to the abdomen was hard enough and narrow enough to press the abdomen and all the structures below the liver against her spine and cause the first part of the small intestine to be ripped in half.”
When that happened, acid, bile, food and bacteria started draining into a sterile area.
He said that was the single injury that caused her death. But that injury was in the context of a number of significant injuries that would cause any doctor, who saw those injuries, to want to isolate the child from what caused those injuries. “They were not injuries that would have stopped her life but they were injuries of chronic child abuse,” Erickson said.
“There was enough scarring on her scalp that even I was surprised,”said Erickson, a pathologist with more than 20 years experience. “I have never seen that much scarring on a child’s scalp.”
The story of the fall onto rocks did not fit Aubriana’s injuries. She is a text book case of child abuse, according to Erickson. “If you want to train physicians, teachers and nurses to see what an abused child looks like, show this child’s pictures,” Erickson said.
Erickson then used an iPad app to demonstrate for the jury what happened to Aubriana, internally, when she received the blow the ultimately caused her death.
On cross examination by Rosenzweig, Erickson said he could not say who caused Aubriana’s injuries or date those injuries.
After Rosenzweig’s cross examination, Circuit Judge Bynum Gibson had a question for the pathologist: “Are there any injuries that you saw that you can age, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty?”
Erickson said some of the injuries could have been months old but the only thing he could say with a reasonable degree of medical certainty is “this is a chronic process of repeated blunt force injuries… over time.”
Daniel Pedraza followed his attorneys’ advice and did not testify.
In his closing arguments, Deen pointed out that there were no mental health experts testifying that Pedraza was scarred by his childhood in Mexico or experience in Iraq. He told the jurors that if Pedraza was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of his service in Iraq there would have been psychologists and psychiatrists on the stand telling them about it.
“The reason you didn’t hear those things is because it is not true,” Deen said. “It is false if the suggestion is, because of his service in Iraq, that somehow mitigates his torture and murder of Aubriana.”
Deen’ said millions of veterans return from war and don’t kill family members.”My father didn’t kill my sister when he returned from Vietnam, my grandfather didn’t kill my mama when he returned from World War II, and millions of other returning veterans didn’t do that.”
Deen said it likely will never be known why Daniel Pedraza did what he did or why Victoria Pedraza didn’t do what she should have done.
“I don’t think she can tell you herself,” Deen said. “She says because she was terrified of him. I find that to be a pitiful excuse. Pitiful. As I pointed out, he can’t be awake 24 hours a day. He’s got to sleep sometime…. I think you know what would happen with most mamas. I know what the mama of my children would have done. I would have woke up with an ice pick sticking out of my eye or my kneecap blown off. Didn’t happen… But does that make him any less guilty? Does her dereliction of her duty, her complete abandonment of her natural God-given role to protect her child, make him any less guilty? No.”
Anyone capable of doing what Daniel Pedraza did to Aubriana Coke does not deserve to ever get out of prison, Deen told the jury.
“How can you mitigate… what produced this?” Deen said, displaying before the jury, a photo of the deceased toddler. “What mitigation in this world can there be for what produced this?”
In his closing argument, Birc Morledge, a member of Pedraza’s defense team, portrayed Victoria Pedraza as a liar whose “fish tales” got bigger and bigger with each of her statements. He portrayed Daniel Pedraza as someone deserving of a second chance and asked the jury to sentence him to a term of years rather than life.
The jury deliberated just under two hours before recommending that Daniel Pedraza spend the rest of his life in prison.
PEDRAZA CASE STORY INDEX
(in descending order beginning with most recent)
Jury selection for Pedraza trial starts Thursday (pretrial feature with photos)