Should Father Convicted in Baby's Death Get Out of Prison?
|Balta in prison, looking at photos of his dead daughter.|
Balta had been inside Gulfstream Park in Hallandale
Balta pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter for Veronika's death and was sentenced to 20 years in prison with no chance of appeal. Now, five years later, a handful of advocates across the country are working hard to set him free.
As Antonio Balta worked grooming horses at Gulfstream, he kept Veronika's stroller close. He'd talk to her. He called her "mami" -- short for mami chula, Spanish for "pretty mommy." Veronika's mother worked at Gulfstream as a waitress, and the young couple couldn't afford daycare.
"He was a good father," says Doris Sutton, an 89-year-old poet living in La Hoya, California. "He's not a criminal. He's a grieving father. It was an accident."
Sutton and her husband have been writing letters and advocating for his freedom since they first heard about Balta's case in 2004. Doris was staying with grandchildren in Fort Lauderdale at the time. When Balta was arrested, headlines were splashed across the local media proclaiming "Father Gambles as Child Dies!" During trial, a psychologist testified that Balta's IQ was 74. His lawyer pointed out that Balta was "borderline retarded." But during sentencing, Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes called Balta's behavior "totally callous."
Interestingly, two years later, Dr. Dennis Sierra, a dentist living in Parkland, took his toddler to work with him one sunny day in July and left him in the car. He thought it'd only be for a moment, but Sierra got distracted. Three hours later, the 3-year-old in the back seat was dead.
A Palm Beach Post editorial advised readers to "mourn for the preoccupied dad." In court, Sierra got ten years of probation. And nationwide, Sierra's is the much more typical punishment.
Sutton says it's a double standard. She says Balta, the poor immigrant (he doesn't even have a lawyer), was demonized because his case involved gambling. But she says Balta is no monster. "He's very quiet," she says, "very deeply religious." Sutton and her husband have written every member of the Florida Legislature on Balta's behalf at least four times.
In his five years behind bars, Balta has earned his GED and now helps other inmates study. He works as a carpenter and even crafted an elaborate wooden dollhouse. His cell is lined with photos of Veronika. Sutton says he doesn't get many visitors. They correspond regularly.
Sutton says there is some hope. In addition to speaking to a few Florida state legislators, she says she was told that it's possible a House bill passed three years ago might allow immigrant inmates the ability to leave the U.S. She says that Balta would rather live in this country than Peru but that he desperately wants out of prison.