Estevan Garcia finished his testimony Friday by blaming his wife for starving their 5-year-old daughter to death, and himself for allowing it.

After a probing cross-examination in Deschutes County Circuit Court, Garcia’s lawyer asked him if he felt he should be held accountable for what he didn’t do to save Maliyha Hope Garcia’s life.

“I actually do, yes,” he said.

“Sitting here through this trial, there’s definitely times when I’ve been like, how was I not aware of that? Was I that checked out? There were things that should have been obvious to me.”

Garcia, 35, and his wife, Sacora Horn-Garcia, 33, are accused of intentionally withholding food and medical care to Maliyha, who died Dec. 21, 2016, weighing 24 pounds.

Starvation was ruled her cause of death.

So far, lawyers for the co-defendant couple have pursued different strategies, with Garcia placing much of the blame on Horn-Garcia.

The two are still married though they rarely acknowledge each other during breaks in the courtroom.

They have been inmates of the Deschutes County jail longer than they were a free couple.

Maliyha was born to Garcia’s sister, and he adopted her shortly after she was born and tested positive for meth.

Garcia on Friday said he felt responsible for allowing Horn-Garcia to starve his adopted daughter. But he stopped short of accepting blame for murder.

The jury will ultimately consider murder in addition to other, lesser crimes for both.

Garcia told prosecutor Stacy Neil he was surprised to learn during the trial that Maliyha hadn’t gotten taller between March 2016 — the last time she was measured — and her autopsy. Charts were shown earlier in the trial showing Maliyha hit most developmental benchmarks until about a year and a half before her death. This was right around when Garcia testified he “checked out” of the marriage due to differences. He called his wife “mentally unstable.”

“I felt like I was dying inside,” he testified.

Neil questioned Garcia at length Friday, noting inconsistencies in his trial testimony and his interviews with police. She asked him to explain some of the 26,000 text messages between him and his wife from mid-2015 until 2016 entered as evidence in the trial. More than 700 of the messages were read aloud in court, all which concerned Maliyha in some way. They show the couple feuded often about parenting Maliyha, with Horn-Garcia often initiating discipline and often for Maliyha not “using her words,” or not verbalizing her intentions and desires.

Horn-Garcia regularly texted her husband while he was at work, to his annoyance, he testified, while she was home with the kids. The texts show she felt he didn’t enforce household rules with Maliyha and was inconsistent disciplining her. She regularly accused him of “babying” the child.

“Ms. Horn-Garcia also frequently gave you a hard time about babying, or pampering, Maliyha, didn’t she?” Neil said.

“All the time,” Garcia answered. “It was this constant tug-of-war.”

On Thursday, Garcia described his tough upbringing in California, which involved physical abuse and serious health problems.

Garcia was born premature with one kidney and one lung. He had more ribs on one side than the other, causing him to develop scoliosis early in life and stunting his growth. He was a regular patient at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland until he was 20. The experience so turned him off to doctors, he didn’t see another one for 10 years, he testified.

Garcia raised Maliyha with an ex-girlfriend, then as a single father, until she was 3, when he married Horn-Garcia after dating for four months. A recent widow, Horn-Garcia brought to the marriage three daughters older than Maliyha.

The prosecution alleges the girl was singled out for abuse and treated differently than her older stepsisters. Garcia points out this dynamic in several texts.

“I guess her and Nala can share the kennel then,” Horn-Garcia texted back, referring to their dog.

One marital dispute documented in the texts involves Horn-Garcia upset with her husband for covering Maliyha with a blanket after Horn-Garcia had forced her to go to bed uncovered.

“Why would you get in trouble for covering your child with a blanket?” Neil asked Garcia.

“It’s that babying thing,” he responded. “I don’t know.”

“I’m having a hard time understanding,” Neil replied. “Where was the outrage? Covering her with a blanket, that’s a normal fatherly thing to do.”

“Correct,” he said. “Like, I’ve been I’ve having this conversation with myself: How come I didn’t? I don’t know if I was really all there at that time … But that shouldn’t have mattered. There’s a lot of things that shouldn’t have mattered, you know. She’s 3 or 4 years old, so I agree with you there.”

Doctors and child abuse specialists have so far testified to the obvious nature of Maliyha’s malnutrition, seen in photos, increasing in severity up until her autopsy.

Garcia claimed he thought those the symptoms of starvation were just a growing girl “losing her chubby cheeks,” that he never saw how truly skinny she was because he never saw her without clothes on. He said he assumed Maliyha was getting meals while he was at work, and that he believed she received adequate nutrition despite occasionally missing meals.

“Again, I thought these were isolated incidents,” he said.

Neil pressed him on texts appearing to show that he knew Maliyha often missed meals, and was often punished harshly by her stepmother.

“This is your opportunity to tell us what you really didn’t know about her not getting consistent meals,” Neil said. “Or do you want me to go through some more messages?”

To that, he replied: “With the whole not-using-her-words, I knew there was some indication, that maybe, because Maliyha’s not asking, that maybe she’s not eating. I see it now. At that point, I thought it was maybe not a big deal.”

The texts show Garcia occasionally did get upset with Horn-Garcia for withholding food from the girl. But Neil told him this wasn’t enough.

“You could have left and rescued her, but you didn’t,” she said.

“Correct,” he replied.

“You had concerns about Maliyha, but your actions did not match your care and concern, did they?” Neil said.

His response: “I put Maliyha on the back burner, and thought that she was being taken care of. She didn’t get enough food, I’m not denying it. I put her on the back burner, and she wasn’t being fed. I know that …”

Neil cut him off.

“But your actions are what mattered, and you failed her,” she said.

“Absolutely,” Garcia said.

With that, Neil ended her cross-examination.

After Garcia’s left the stand, Horn-Garcia’s lawyers began calling witnesses. Two of her daughters, now 13 and 15, and one of her younger brothers testified they didn’t see Maliyha treated differently from anyone else in the house.

The sisters said she was never forced to skip meals.

“That’s something I would remember,” one sister said.

A different sister was asked if she was ever mean to Maliyha.

“No,” she said.

“Was anyone ever mean to Maliyha?” asked lawyer Lisa Calyn Valenta.

“No,” the girl responded.

Horn-Garcia is expected to testify when trial resumes Tuesday.

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

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