First trial begins in deadly New York church beating

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Posted: Jun 23, 2016 9:23 PM
First trial begins in deadly New York church beating

UTICA, N.Y. (AP) — The first trial began Thursday in what New York authorities say was a 14-hour group attack during a church counseling session that killed a young man and injured his brother.

In his opening statement, Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara detailed 33-year-old Sarah Ferguson's alleged role in the October assault that killed her 19-year-old half brother, Lucas Leonard, and put his 17-year-old brother in the hospital. Ferguson, he said, used the plug end of a power cord to repeatedly strike her brothers in their groins.

Ferguson is on trial for murder and manslaughter. She was one of nine relatives and church members charged following the October beating inside the Word of Life Christian Church, a family-run congregation operating from a former school that also served as a communal home for several members.

McNamara said the teens were ordered during the beating to repent sins that included using a voodoo doll and molesting children. Police have said there is no evidence to support the sex abuse claim and that the counseling session was called after the brothers discussed leaving the secretive church.

"This was a modern-day witch trial," McNamara told the judge presiding over the trial. Ferguson waived her right to a jury trial earlier this week.

Defense attorney Rebecca Wittman declined to deliver an opening statement Thursday. She said Ferguson would testify at the trial.

Lucas Leonard died slowly after collapsing and losing consciousness as blood from a cut to his penis saturated his left pant leg and sneaker, McNamara said. By the time church members took him to a hospital, his heart had stopped, he said.

The younger brother, Christopher Leonard, was hospitalized for a week with life-threatening damage to his kidneys and injuries to a lung, the prosecutor said.

McNamara said Ferguson, blood on her clothing, ignored the severity of her brothers' injuries and failed to get medical help that could have saved Lucas Leonard.

The victims' father, Bruce Leonard, pleaded guilty Wednesday to assault for his role in the beating and agreed to testify against Ferguson and the remaining defendants. Their mother, Deborah Leonard, pleaded guilty to assault in December with the same conditions.

The other defendants are expected to be tried in the fall on varying counts of second-degree murder, manslaughter, kidnapping, assault and gang assault. They include pastor Tiffanie Irwin, who Deborah Leonard said was viewed as a prophet; Irwin's mother, Traci Irwin; and Tiffanie's brothers Joseph and Daniel Irwin. Mother and son church members, Linda and David Morey, also are charged. All have pleaded not guilty.