Defendant Sarah Ferguson was found not guilty of second-degree murder yesterday, bringing an end to a week-long bench trial in upstate New York for the October 2015 beating death of her half-brother, Lucas Leonard. Judge Michael Dwyer did find her guilty, however, of first-degree manslaughter, two counts of first-degree assault and two counts of gang assault – felonies that each carry up to 25 years in prison. Her sentencing is set for September 1st.
Ferguson was just one of eight people indicted in the death of Lucas Leonard, 19, and the severe beating of his younger brother, Christopher, now 18 – a group of alleged assailants that also included the boys’ parents and the pastor of the church. (Both parents took plea deals, while pastor Tiffanie Irwin is still facing a trial.) The case gained national prominence last fall not only because of the shocking brutality, but because it took place at the secretive Word of Life Christian Church, a small organization that former members have described as a “cult.” Just days after the crime, investigators alleged that the two young men had “expressed a desire to leave” the church, which led to their beating.
This month, in the trial’s opening arguments, prosecutors said that the boys were held after Sunday services for a “counseling session” in which they were accused of everything from witchcraft and voodoo to plotting their parents’ murder and molesting their younger siblings. When they refused to repent for their sins, prosecutors said, they were punched in the face and whipped with a doubled-up electrical cord. Lucas died from his injuries – including a cut to the shaft of his penis that bled so severely it soaked his pants and his shoe – while Christopher suffered serious internal trauma and renal failure that, according to medical testimony, if left untreated could have been fatal as well.
A potential revelation came in the case last Monday when, according to trial reports, victim Christopher admitted on the stand to having inappropriately touched Ferguson’s children, though he stated that he’d never had sex with them. Police Chief Michael Inserra, the official in charge of the initial investigation, told CNN that there wasn’t any evidence to support his claims, noting that it in the state of New York it takes more than just admission to convict someone of sexual abuse. “The investigation did not disclose any indications of Lucas or Christopher sexually abusing any child,” he said. “To the contrary, the investigators were told it would have been impossible for either of these boys to commit any inappropriate acts.”
But the following day, Lucas and Christopher’s 16-year-old sister, Grace, took the stand, describing to the judge how she had to move to the attic of their home after Lucas watched her taking a shower, and how they began to touch her inappropriately starting when she was just four or five years old. She also described a strange scene from that October Sunday in question, where pastor Tiffanie Irwin called out several church members during the daylong service. “One of the people she called out was Lucas,” Grace testified. “She told him to stand up, and then asked him why he wanted to leave the church. … He said he wanted to leave the church so he could molest little girls without getting caught.”
When Ferguson took the stand in her own defense last Friday, she readily and emotionally admitted to hurting her two half-brothers after they admitted to her that they had touched her children inappropriately. According to local news site CNY Central: “Ferguson testified that she ‘took a cord and proceeded to use it on the genitalia of my brothers,’ as a reaction to what she had heard.” While she admitted to the brutal beating, she denied that she had any intention of killing him. “There was no thought process,” she testified. “There was no thought pattern involved.” This was, in the end, part of what saved her from the second-degree murder charge. Though the prosecution alleged that it was her indifference after the beating that caused his death, the judge did not find that there was sufficient evidence to prove this.
“There has been no proof in this trial that the defendant witnessed Lucas’s collapse, his bleeding that required others to put a tarp underneath him, or his incoherent statements,” the judge said during the reading of the verdict. “The court does not feel that there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant was aware of the risk of Lucas’s death.”
Though plenty of questions remain – like why she chose to forgo a jury trial, and to testify in her own murder trial – a gag order remains in effect, meaning the prosecution and defense won’t be able to speak freely for quite some time.