Not guilty pleas in fatal New York church beating
Nov. 25, 2015
Several members of an insular church in upstate New York pleaded not guilty Wednesday to being part of a group that beat a young man to death and injured his younger brother.
The victims' father, sister and six church leaders and members are charged in a 13-count indictment with murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, assault and gang assault in the death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and the beating of 17-year-old Christopher Leonard inside Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford last month.
Authorities have said "spiritual counseling" spiraled into an all-night attack on the brothers after Lucas Leonard talked about leaving the church.
The grand jury indictment handed up Tuesday contained more serious charges than those police filed soon after the attacks and added three defendants, including the church's pastor, spiritual leader and a deacon, all relatives who live at the former school building where the church is housed.
The charges against the church leadership were expected after Christopher Leonard testified at a hearing last month that it was pastor Tiffanie Irwin who asked the Leonard family and some others to stay behind for a meeting after an eight-hour Sunday service. The teen said he and his brother were pummeled for hours in the torso and genitals with fists, feet and a 4-foot, folded electrical cord.
He described trying to revive the dying Lucas Leonard as he lay bleeding on the floor in the sanctuary.
The father, Bruce Leonard, and half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in Oneida County Court, as did church spiritual leader Traci Irwin, who is Tiffanie's mother, and church members David and Linda Morey, who are mother and son.
Tiffanie Irwin and her brother, Joseph Irwin, a deacon, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday. Another sibling and deacon, Daniel Irwin, is due in court Monday. He is the only one among the eight who is not charged with second-degree murder, instead facing a lesser count of manslaughter, along with the kidnapping, assault and gang assault charges filed against all of the defendants.
All were ordered held without bail.
Bruce Leonard is "grieving as a father would," his attorney, Don Gerace, said by phone after the arraignment.
"There was never any intent to cause Lucas's death," Gerace said. "I don't believe there's any evidence Mr. Leonard acted with depraved indifference, nor that he intended to kidnap his son or cause serious physical injury to his son."
Linda Morey's attorney said the charges against her and David Morey shocked and devastated a loving and close-knit family.
"Linda Morey is a very gentle, compassionate, genuine person," attorney John Raspante said by phone. "The allegations are wholly inconsistent with the person she is."
Attorneys for Traci Irwin and David Morey declined to comment and those representing Joseph and Tiffanie Irwin and Sarah Ferguson couldn't immediately be reached by phone Wednesday. Attorney William Roth, who was out of town, expected to be appointed to represent Daniel Irwin at his arraignment Monday, he said.
The victims' mother, Deborah Leonard, was charged in October with manslaughter but was not included in the new indictment. Her attorney, Devin Garramone, said she would be arraigned next week on lesser charges of assault. Garramone has said the mother felt helpless to stop an "intervention" that she didn't expect to become so harsh.