When Estevan Garcia took the witness stand in his defense, the hardest questions in his murder trial came from his own attorney, who asked: “How does a daughter starve to death before her father’s eyes?”

“You’re absolutely right. Essentially, my daughter died right before my eyes — I won’t make an excuse for it,” Garcia told his lawyer, Jon Weiner, in Deschutes County Circuit Court Thursday. “But I didn’t murder her.”

Garcia’s answers — his first public comments since his arrest in March 2017 for the starvation death of his 5-year-old daughter, Maliyha — described a home in turmoil and a marriage on the rocks.

Garcia and his wife, Sacora Horn-Garcia, are charged with intentionally withholding food and medical care to Maliyha, who died four days before Christmas 2016. She weighed 24 pounds. Starvation was ruled her cause of death.

Prosecutors are attempting to convince the jury the couple singled out Maliyha among their five children as their marriage crumbled and they sought an outlet for their frustrations. Garcia married Horn-Garcia about three years after adopting Maliyha.

Defense attorneys have pushed back against claims the couple didn’t love Maliyha and suggested they believed her declining health was the result of an undiagnosed medical condition.

On Thursday, it became clear how fractured the marriage was.

“I’m a single guy and I go and get married,” Garcia testified. “Now, I have the responsibility of a wife and four kids. I didn’t know it then, but I probably didn’t want to be married to Sacora.”

Maliyha is the sixth child of Garcia’s sister, Angelica. Her first five children were adopted by Garcia’s uncle and aunt in Redmond. But when Maliyha came along, they could not afford to take another child.

At the time, Garcia was dating Sabrina Irvin. The pair were granted parental rights of Maliyha through the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children.

Thursday, Garcia told jurors he felt obligated to step up to keep his sister’s six daughters together in Redmond.

“I immediately said yes, at all costs. We have to keep her in the family,” Garcia said. “I was raised in a dysfunctional household, and I didn’t want that for those girls.”

Garcia testified he moved more than 20 times before graduating high school in Wilsonville in 2001. At 2 years old, he witnessed one of his mom’s boyfriends hold a knife to her throat, he said.

He was managing a Denny’s franchise in Wilsonville when he accepted a transfer to a location on Third Street in Bend. In 2011, he took a job as a manager at the Redmond Safeway.

Garcia and Irvin broke up when Maliyha was 2. Garcia’s relatives jumped in to help, he testified. He referred fondly to these days as a single father. He said he overcompensated because Maliyha “lost two moms already.”

“If she wanted ice cream for dinner, I agreed with that, because I wanted ice cream too. Pizza for dinner? OK,” he said. “Our communication was pretty smooth, but also I would kind of give Maliyha whatever she wanted.”

Eleven months after his break-up with Irvin, Garcia started dating Horn-Garcia, a recent widow with three young daughters. They were married four months later.

“Looking back, I don’t think Sacora ever really had time to grieve,” he said.

Before the defense began calling witnesses, the state ended its presentation last week with an outline of 26,000 text messages between the couple. They show near-constant tension between them. One recurring issue was Horn-Garcia’s insistence that Maliyha “use her words” and ask for food, instead of taking it from the kitchen without permission.

Maliyha so frequently left her bed in the middle of the night to find food, the couple installed an alarm on her bedroom door, Garcia said.

A previous witness — a family friend — said Horn-Garcia “wore the pants” in the couple’s relationship. On Thursday, Garcia agreed with this description, calling himself a more “passive” person and Sacora, “more dominant.”

Beyond that, she had more experience raising children, he said.

“I deferred to anyone with more experience, and anyone had more experience than I did,” he said.

Several months into his marriage, he started “checking out” as a husband, Garcia testified.

Then, Imani came along.

Garcia’s sister, Angelica, called him in January 2016 and said she’d just given birth to her seventh child, named Imani, another daughter. Knowing Angelica’s history, California child welfare authorities were waiting for the birth and seized the child after she tested positive for methamphetamine, hours after her birth.

Again, Garcia felt responsible to adopt her sister’s child. He decided to “fake it until he makes it” in his marriage, he said.

“I needed to stay married to raise my other niece,” he said. “Sacora was on board with it. Maybe she thought Imani might be the baby to save the marriage. I thought maybe it could work out.”

But evidence, including the text messages, and trial testimony suggest that things did not work out.

Among the key details revealed in the texts: The couple increasingly punished Maliyha by withholding meals and forcing her to scrub walls and floors.

Garcia was asked about this by his attorney.

Garcia said Maliyha regularly drew on surfaces around their home. One time, he said he entered her bedroom and discovered she’d smeared feces on her wall. This is when he made her try to clean the walls for several hours.

“It’s kind of ridiculous, you know,” he testified. “A 3-year-old probably loses the point after three minutes. You wish you made a different parenting decision. But again, if it was just me and Maliyha, I probably wouldn’t have made any decision. If it was just me and Maliyha, I probably would have just done it myself.”

Trial began Thursday with an evidentiary hearing lasting several hours, during which the jury was not seated in the courtroom.

A Garcia family friend had came forward over the weekend with screenshots purporting to show Horn-Garcia downplaying concerns about Maliyha’s health on social media. But after several expert witnesses raised questions about the veracity of the screenshots, Garcia’s lawyers withdrew them as evidence.

After the lunch break, the jury returned and an Oregon state employee took the witness stand. Kari Hodai, a Department of Human Services case worker, performed the home study before Imani’s placement in the home.

She was asked if she saw any “red flags” in the home.

“Based on the information that I had at the time, and the observations that I had over my two visits, no,” Hodai said.

Among the flood of new information Thursday, Hodai confirmed that child welfare authorities in Oregon saw Maliyha face-to-face in the year before her death.

Hodai on Thursday said she visited the family twice — in June and July 2016 — and approved Imani’s home placement. Her final report included letters from four references for the family.

During the July 6 visit, Sacora was home and Maliyha was in the living room, watching a movie. Hodai remembers asking her about the movie.

“She didn’t seem interested in talking with me,” Hodai said. “Sometimes, where kids are that little, I attempt to speak with them, but they’re shy, maybe not interested. I’m not forceful with it.”

Beyond that, there would have been three in-person meetings with DHS workers — every 30 days in September, October and November 2016 — in the Garcia home. No concerns about Maliyha’s condition by DHS workers have so far been discussed at trial.

Witnesses for the prosecution, including doctors and a child abuse expert, have testified the girl was obviously malnourished in the months before her death. The child abuse expert called her condition “pre-morbid,” judging by pictures.

Garcia’s attorneys expect to rest their case Friday. After that, Horn-Garcia’s lawyers intend to call five witnesses before Horn-Garcia herself.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, gandrews@bendbulletin.com

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected. The original version misstated the number of times DHS workers saw Maliyha Garcia in person. The Bulletin regrets the error.

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