Contributed Photo/Courtesy GCSO: Aaron Garza, 29, was sentenced Tuesday to 15 years in prison for the death of his son, Aaron Jordan “AJ” Garza, in November 2019.
By Jon Johnson
SAFFORD – Aaron Adrian Garza, 29, appeared in front of Graham County Superior Court Judge Pro Tem Travis L. Ragland on Tuesday and was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the death of his 11-month-old son, Aaron Jordan “AJ” Garza. The sentence will be day-for-day with 706 days of credit for time served.
Judge Ragland found aggravating factors of emotional suffering to the victim’s family and that it happened in front of another child, and he also found several mitigating factors, however, he said that “unfortunately, to a certain extent, we don’t know what happened.”
“I don’t have any reason to believe that he intentionally killed his child,” Judge Ragland said. “But at the end of the day what I do have is a dead child, an admission, and a prison mandatory plea agreement.”
Aaron Garza’s attorney, Donielle I. Wright, of Tucson, had argued for the minimum 10-year sentence, and Graham County Chief Deputy Prosecutor C. Alan Perkins argued for the maximum of 15 years allowed under the plea.
Aaron Garza previously pleaded guilty to an amended charge of manslaughter, a Class-2 felony that called for a sentence between 10 to 15 years. That plea was deferred by Judge Ragland and accepted Tuesday. He was originally charged with murder in the first degree on Feb. 11, 2021, regarding an incident that occurred on Nov. 15, 2019. At that time, Graham County Dispatch received a phone call from a residence on S. Cheyenne Drive reporting an infant was not breathing but was gasping for air and possibly choking on a chip. The reporting party later advised that the infant stopped gasping entirely at 11:32 p.m.
AJ was transported to Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center shortly before midnight, where ER staff noticed that he showed signs of bruising and had head trauma, which ended up later being listed as a skull fracture.
AJ was then flown to Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, where he was kept on life support but was later declared brain dead at 5:55 a.m., on Nov. 18, 2019. He was then kept on life support until Nov. 20, 2019, so his body could be used for organ donation.
According to an autopsy from the Pima County Office of Medical Examiner, the cause of death was blunt force trauma/homicide from an 8.5-centimeter fracture to the back o his head, and that AJ had hemorrhaging that went into his spinal cord as well as a retinal hemorrhage in his eyes.
Garza was initially arrested on Nov. 27, 2019, and was booked into the Graham County Adult Detention Facility for manslaughter and child abuse after the Graham County Sheriff’s Office reviewed autopsy results from the Pima County Office of Medical Examiner and interviewed him. Garza – who had the two children because their mother who didn’t live with Garza had dropped them off due to having work – allegedly said the child had fallen off a couch the previous day but wasn’t aware why he had issues breathing that day. He then said his daughter had been giving AJ Pringles potato chips, which caused him to choke. Garza also claimed that AJ had frequently hit his head on things at the child’s mother’s residence and that he had frequently climbed on chairs and fallen.
The night of the incident, a doctor at MGRMC advised the child had suffered a skull fracture to the back of his head. The child also had a large bruise on his face. Garza explained that he had struck AJ to wake him after he choked on the chip, according to a police report. Garza also explained that AJ had fallen off a couch and struck his head on a table, which likely caused the skull fracture in his opinion.
Garza then said the same day his son fell he was carrying him through a doorway when he accidentally hit the back of AJ’s head on the corner of the wall. However, according to the doctor who performed the autopsy, the manner in which AJs injury occurred did not fit Garza’s explanations and even if they did the extreme injury would have immediately been realized by the parent, which Garza allegedly advised he didn’t notice his son acting any differently after bumping his head.
The sentencing came after a roughly two-hour hearing involving comments from both parents of the deceased child, family support for Aaron Garza, and argument for and against the length of prison time.
On Tuesday, AJ’s mother, Alicia Garcia, addressed Aaron Garza in court and expressed her thoughts on the sentencing structure he faced.
“Ten to 15 years?” Garcia questioned. “I’m sorry, but you got off easy. Ten to 15 years is nothing compared to a lifetime without my son. He never got his first birthday. He never got to take his first steps. I’ll never get to take him to his first day of school.”
“He was defenseless with no one there to even help him,” Gacia said. ”And as I stand up here and look at you I feel disgust. I’m disgusted to know that such a person could cause hurt to his own child and not accept the accountability needed.”
Aaron Garza also spoke on his own behalf and said he failed his son, daughter, their mother, and his family and asked for the minimum sentence so he could be there for his daughter while she was still a juvenile.
“Your honor, I ask that I may receive a lower sentence so I will have the opportunity to be there for my daughter while she is still a child,” Aaron Garza said. “That I might have another chance to be the best father I can be. The best chance to have a bond between a father and daughter. A chance to be my daughter’s hero.”
Graham County Chief Deputy County Attorney C. Alan Perkins prosecuted the case and pointed out that while the factual basis was given, the judge could take into account additional evidence, such as additional allegations of child abuse that arose from two separate injuries that required medical attention prior to the fatal incident.
Perkins also went over a summary of AJ’s injuries and said it displayed typical symptoms of what used to be called “shaken baby syndrome” and detailed the severity of the fracture and hemorrhages.
“This child was battered,” Perkins said.
“We don’t know the mechanism by which this child sustained that serious injury to the back of his head, that fracture. But a 2-inch fracture is huge in this situation and it doesn’t happen by waiving a wand at it. His head had to contact something or something had to contact his head with substantial force in order to inflict that kind of injury.”
Perkins argued for an aggravated term and requested Aaron Garza be sentenced to the maximum term allowed by the plea agreement of 15 years.
Aaron Garza’s family members, including his mother, grandmother, brother, and cousin all spoke on his behalf.
His attorney, Donielle I. Wright, called the Graham County Sheriff’s Office investigation “one of the worst” she has ever seen and said the medical evidence could be misconstrued. Wright said her client is guilty of being negligent as stated in the plea agreement and not intentional harm.
“This was a horrible investigation,” Wright said. “I don’t know if the court’s aware but I used to prosecute cases just like this for the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office, so I have a lot of experience in child abuse cases, death investigations of this sort. This is one of the worst investigations that I’ve ever seen put on paper before.”
Wright said Aaron Garza accidentally hit his son’s head on a doorframe and then shook him and smacked him in his face to get him to breathe.
“My client – he did not intentionally cause any injury to his child,” Wright said. “He was negligent, yes, and he was maybe not a very astute parent. He didn’t have a dad of his own. He didn’t really know how to parent children, he was kind of winging it. And he didn’t really understand the severity of that injury that AJ suffered when his head hit the doorframe. He didn’t think it was a significant injury. But there is no evidence whatsoever that this child was beaten . . . He didn’t recognize the severity of the injury to the head when he struck the doorframe. He didn’t recognize that shaking his baby was going to cause further injury rather than help him. He did not recognize that slapping the baby to try to get the baby to breathe was doing more harm than good. This is just classic negligent parenting, not intentionally trying to harm his son.”
Wright added that Aaron Garza is remorseful for what happened and will always suffer for his failure that night.
“There is nothing that is ever going to take away this pain for anybody that’s in this room right now that are a family member. It’s never going to go away. There is no salve that can be applied to this wound. It is going to be a lifelong thing. Even when Aaron gets out of prison this is something that is going to haunt him the rest of his life. He is in a mental prison that can not be escaped until he probably dies himself.”
In the end, Judge Ragland sentenced Aaron Garza to the maximum of 15 years allowed under the plea agreement and said he didn’t believe the injury was done intentionally.
“Had the court thought that there had been intent to do this my guess is that the prosecution wouldn’t have offered the plea and the court would not have accepted a plea of this nature if that had been the case and the facts had supported that,” Judge Ragland said.