Fifteen months ago, Aubriana Coke died a painful death in a mobile home in Drew County where she lived with her mother and stepfather. Thursday, Thomas Deen and Jeff Rosenzweig will begin the task of choosing 12 jurors to decide whether the toddler’s stepfather caused her death.
On February 27, 2012, when the ambulance arrived at a mobile home on Old Highway 13, north of Monticello, paramedics found an unresponsive 2-year-old. As they were leaving, one of the emergency workers asked Victoria Pedraza how long had her daughter not been breathing. She said 30 to 40 minutes.
She didn’t have a heartbeat, her eyes were dilated and she was cold to the touch. “We left and carried the child to the hospital but she was dead,” the paramedic said later.
Dr. Stephen Erickson, the chief deputy medical examiner, subsequently ruled the child’s death a homicide, caused by multiple blunt force injuries. Aubriana was struck by a blow that ripped her small bowel, something that would have been very painful, Erickson said.
He characterized the child as having been chronically abused.
Initially, Aubriana’s mother, Victoria Pedraza, and stepfather, Daniel Pedraza, said toddler fell from a dock onto rocks at Lake Monticello during a family outing the previous day, according to court documents.
Daniel Pedraza reportedly told police he and his wife monitored Aubriana throughout the evening and when they woke the following morning she seemed weak. He said they performed CPR and called 911.
“Brie wasn’t my daughter but I loved her like she was,” Daniel Pedraza told police. “She was my motivation to get better and everything. I keep thinking, what if I had just gone ahead and taken her to the doctor after she fell yesterday; she’d be better now.”
Victoria Pedraza told a similar story, but provided additional details about efforts to revive her. She said Daniel tried to revive Aubriana with natural healing remedies and blessing her.
“Daniel’s family has their own way of dealing with things,” she told police. “His family has a thing about using an egg to cleanse the body. You put holy water on the egg and rub it on the body.”
When told there were discrepancies in their story, Daniel reportedly told police, “Well, I’m sorry I didn’t get a note pad and write down every little thing I was doing during that time. I was over there trying to make sure Brie survived, that she was breathing and everything. I was praying too.”
Victoria Pedraza told police they didn’t take her to the emergency room the night before she died because she had been reported to DHS.
“I told Daniel, ‘What would it look like if we take Brie to the hospital with the (expletive deleted) I’m already under, and this and that,'” she reportedly told police. “I didn’t see it as anything serious enough to take her at the time. Was that my fault? Yes. Am I guilty of that? Yes. But, I’ve never sat and abused my child. I’ve never locked her up, tied her up, or any of that other stuff you all were talking about. I loved my daughter. She was my whole life for two years. Yes, I was worried about all the stuff with DHS, and I was worried it was going to get exaggerated.”
Two days later, after Daniel and Victoria Pedraza were arrested on suspicion of capital murder and permitting abuse of a child, Victoria told authorities that Daniel caused Aubriana’s death.
She said Daniel struck Aubriana in the abdomen with his fist after she urinated on the floor in her “time out corner.”
“Daniel was in the bedroom with Brie,” she told police. “He was trying to discipline her and make her stand against the wall, in the chair position. I went in there and saw him talking to her. I think he was trying to get her to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ out loud about whether or not she used the bathroom on the floor. I was standing near the doorway, and he had his back to me. He punched her in the stomach with his fist. It wasn’t a soft punch, but he wasn’t just pounding on her. I didn’t know it was that hard. Brie made a noise; it took her breath away….”
That evening, they tried several natural healing remedies but she began to throw up, she told police.
“I was like, my God, I hope and pray that it’s not from something he (did),” she said in her statement to police. “I asked her, ‘baby, are you okay?’ and she didn’t answer. She was just breathing hard.”
Victoria said she put Aubriana to bed with them and she threw up all night. “She didn’t throw up in my bed. She would tell me when she needed to go and we’d get up and go to the bathroom.”
The following morning when they woke, she said Aubriana was weak and her breathing was shallow and Daniel was trying to bless her. “That’s when she took that deep breath that she didn’t let out,” she said.
They began to perform CPR and called 911, she said.
Victoria said Daniel has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and had beaten her as well. She showed officers numerous bruises on her own arms, legs and buttocks where she said he had beaten her with a belt the Friday before Aubriana died.
“I just didn’t know how to get out of that situation with Daniel,” she said. “I didn’t have any family to help me, and I didn’t have a car. Friday night, after he beat me with the belt, I thought about calling somebody to come get me. He even told me not to call anybody our use my phone unless he called or texted me. Saturday, he had drill all day and I thought about leaving, but I didn’t.”
Victoria Pedraza has entered into a plea agreement with the prosecutor. In exchange for her truthful testimony at Daniel Pedraza’s capital murder trial, the capital murder charge against her will be dropped. However, she still faces the charge of permitting the abuse that caused her daughter’s death and could face up to 20 years in prison.
Daniel Pedraza will be tried for capital murder and could face the death penalty if convicted. He says he did not cause his stepdaughter’s death and has rejected his attorneys’ pursuit of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder defense. Two mental health experts say he suffers from the disorder as a result of childhood abuse and service in Iraq, while another says he does not. (Ruling on that issue.)
Pedraza told one mental health professional he would prefer to focus on the fact that he did not cause his stepdaughter’s death than pursue a Post Traumatic Stress Disorder defense.
Pedraza’s defense team includes Jeff Rosenzweig, Birc Morledge, both Little Rock attorneys, and Timothy Leonard of Ashley County. Tenth Judicial District Prosecutor Thomas Deen will try the case for the state and Circuit Judge Bynum Gibson will preside over the 7-day trial.
The Prosecutor: Thomas Deen
In 12 years as the 10th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney, Thomas Deen has earned a reputation for meticulous preparation, intensity and a no-nonsense courtroom demeanor. The first case he tried as a prosecutor resulted in a death sentence for a Chicot County man for the execution-style slaying of an acquaintance. The sentence was overturned on appeal but the conviction was upheld. Another case resulted in Drew County’s first death sentence in more than 40 years. After hearing the state’s case, the jury recommended that the man receive the death penalty for the bludgeoning and stabbing death of an elderly man and the rape and attempted murder of his elderly caretaker. Deen, 52, served six years Arkansas Supreme Court Criminal Practice Committee, served on the Arkansas Supreme Court Criminal Jury Instruction Committee and is past president of the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association. He grew up in Desha County and is the father of three sons.
The Defense: Jeff Rosenzweig
Rosenzweig is a prominent Little Rock trial lawyer and an appeals specialist. He has been involved in numerous high-profile cases including the Gary Dunn trials in the Nona Dirksmeyer case; the appeals for Jessie Misskelley, one of the West Memphis 3; and represented former Gov. Jim Guy Tucker. He is a 3-time recipient of the Arkansas Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers’ Champion of Justice Award and served six years on the Arkansas Supreme Court Criminal Practice Committee. Rosenzweig, 60, grew up in Hot Springs and has practiced law since 1977. He enjoys bicycling, swimming, working crossword puzzles, and reading biographies, science and history. He is married and has a stepson.
The Judge: Bynum Gibson
Circuit Judge Bynum Gibson is a graduate of several National Judicial College Courses including capital murder of which he was rated 6.8 on a 7.0 scale for leadership by his fellow judges. A former state Legislator, Gibson was named Best Legislator by the Arkansas Democrat after his second term and one of the top 10 Legislators by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette during his third and fourth terms. He was also named Best Legislator by Arkansas Times. He is the recipient of the Arkansas Judicial Council’s First Branch Award, the Arkansas Municipal League’s Distinguished Service Award, the Arkansas Wildlife Federation’s Best Legislator Award, and the Award of Merit from the Arkansas Bar Association. A native of Dermott, Gibson served five years as municipal judge in that city where he also practiced law until he was elected Circuit Judge. He was the Chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party from 1993 until 1997.
The trial begins Thursday morning with jury selection. Gibson has set aside two days for voir dire. The first jury pool of 93 potential jurors will be called Thursday and second pool will be called Friday if needed.
Information in this article was obtained from court documents and courtroom testimony.