By Fred Woods
Ava Zapata, a four-year-old Lee County native died on May 2012 as a result of a brutal beating at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. These kinds of incidents usually make lurid newspaper headlines for a couple of days and are then quickly forgotten. Not so this time. Assistant District Attorney Jessica Ventiere, who prosecuted the case, was determined that Ava was not going to be forgotten.
Under former Alabama law, aggravated child abuse leading to the death of a child could only be prosecuted as manslaughter, with a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison. Taking advantage of vagaries in the statute and the brutality of the beating, Ms. Ventiere was able to convince the judge to sentence Ava’s assailant to 50 years in prison, but this was not enough for the determined ADA. A death of this serious nature deserved to be called (and punished as) murder. With the help of a sympathetic boss, District Attorney Robbie Treese, and a helpful legislator, Senator Tom Whatley, Jessica Ventiere set out to strengthen Alabama’s child abuse law.
Last week, all those efforts came to fruition as Gov. Bentley signed Sen. Whatley’s bill into law. According to both Ventiere and Whatley, Ava’s Law permits an option stronger than manslaughter, the charge of felony murder when the evidence shows an intent to abuse but not necessarily the specific intent to kill, which is required to prove capital murder.
Ventiere said, “Aggravated child abuse is a cruel and intentional act that deserves to be set apart from the recklessness of manslaughter.” That’s what Ava’s Law does.