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Appeal in Word of Life murder case rejected

Sean I. Mills
Staff writer
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Posted 11/12/19

The appeal in the Word of Life church murder case has been rejected by the New York State Appellate Court in Rochester. The multi-judge panel issued their decision on Friday against Sarah J. …

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Appeal in Word of Life murder case rejected

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The appeal in the Word of Life church murder case has been rejected by the New York State Appellate Court in Rochester.

The multi-judge panel issued their decision on Friday against Sarah J. Ferguson.

Ferguson, age 37, argued on appeal that she was convicted on insufficient evidence, that the sentence was too severe, that the grand jury was tainted and that the pre-sentence report was not correctly redacted.

The Appellate Court rejected the first three notions, but did agree with Ferguson that the pre-sentence report could be further redacted. The Court ruled that Ferguson's convictions on manslaughter, assault and gang assault will stand.

On Oct. 11, 2015, nine members of the secluded Word of Life church in New Hartford viciously beat brothers Lucas and Christopher Leonard during a so-called counseling session at the facility, prosecutors said. The boys were accused of sexually abusing several children at the church, though prosecutors said such abuse never occurred.

After the beating, which included whipping with an electrical cord, authorities said the brothers were left to sit with their wounds for up to 12 hours inside the church.

Lucas Leonard eventually succumbed to his injuries and died. Christopher suffered severe injuries and was close to death.

Of the nine church members, eight accepted plea deals and went to state prison, including the boys’ parents. Only their half-sister, Ferguson, took her case to trial, in late June and July 2016. Ferguson opted for a non-jury trial, and County Court Judge Michael L. Dwyer found her not guilty of murder — then found her guilty of first-degree manslaughter, assault and gang assault.

Ferguson was sentenced on Sept. 1, 2016 to 25 years in state prison. She is not available for parole until 2037. Her appeal was argued before the Appellate Court in early September 2019.

The Court ruled on Friday that Ferguson’s claim of insufficient evidence “lacks merit”.

“Notably, the evidence established that defendant, and only defendant, struck Lucas and Christopher in their groins, and that she struck them more times overall than anyone else who was involved. Although defendant repeatedly claimed that she did not put ‘much thought’ into what she was doing and that she did not have a ‘thought process’, she also acknowledged that she purposefully struck Lucas and Christopher in their groins specifically because she believed that they had sexually abused her children,” the decision stated.

“We conclude that the evidence is legally sufficient to support the conviction…viewing the evidence in light of the elements of the crimes in this nonjury trial, we conclude that the verdict is not against the weight of the evidence."

As for the tainted grand jury, the Appellate Court ruled, “upon our review of the expert testimony presented and the limiting instructions issued during grand jury proceeding, we conclude that defendant failed to meet her burden” to establish any possible prejudice. The Court also ruled that Ferguson’s sentence was proper.

The Appellate Division rejected Ferguson’s overall appeal, but did agree to return the case to County Court for a hearing to properly redact portions of the pre-sentencing report. The hearing date has not yet been set.

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