AUSTIN (KXAN) — A 29-year-old Austin man has been found guilty of capital murder in the Oct. 18, 2016 death of his girlfriend’s 2-year-old daughter.
Stephen Cortez Jr. was found guilty Monday and will be sentenced to an automatic term of life without parole, according to Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore. It took the jury 45 minutes to reach a unanimous guilty verdict.
Cortez and the child’s mother brought the toddler to Dell Children’s Medical Center in the afternoon of Oct. 18 and said the girl, Juleanna Arevalo, had fallen down a flight of stairs. She died 30 minutes later.
According to an arrest warrant, the girl’s injuries were not consistent with a fall. Cortez claimed the various injuries were a result of him attempting CPR on the girl after she fell. Police officers noticed swelling on Cortez’s right hand.
The 2016 police affidavit states the girl’s mother claimed she was home when the girl fell down the stairs, but the mother’s grandmother told police there was no way the mother could have been home without them seeing each other.
The Travis County medical examiner ruled the child died by homicide due to the blunt force trauma to the abdomen.
The District Attorney’s Office said Cortez repeatedly abused the child during his 6-month relationship with her mother, including hitting the child, stuffing her in a nightstand drawer, dowsing her in water and then forcing her to stand in front of an A/C long enough to develop hypothermia, spraying her in the face with a water bottle and stuffing her mouth with a gag to stop her from crying.
On the stand, Cortez admitted to repeatedly abusing the girl but denied intentionally or knowingly causing her death.
The prosecution presented additional evidence from Cortez’s cellphone which showed web searches for how to hide bruises and how to fight CPS, among other incriminating information, the DA’s Office said.
Cortez previously evaded CPS by hiding the child under a futon and on another occasion fleeing the house with the child and the child’s mother and living in a car for a week while family members and CPR workers looked for the child.
Austin police said Cortez had a history of numerous assaults. “He was a violent person,” said then-Lt. Justin Newsome.
Cortez has the right to appeal. He was sentenced automatically to life without parole because the case involves a capital murder charge where the state was not seeking the death penalty.