The only person from the World of Life murder case who went to trial will have her appeal heard at the Appellate Court in Rochester on Wednesday.
Sarah Ferguson, age 37, is arguing on appeal that the evidence presented at trial was insufficient, the sentence was too severe, the pre-sentence report was not redacted correctly and a cult expert may have tainted the grand jury.
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.
Ferguson is represented in the appeal by attorney Peter J. DiGiogrio Jr.
As for the insufficient evidence claim, Ferguson argues in her appeal paperwork that her actions were not about intending to cause serious physical injury, as with first-degree manslaughter, but were only a reckless act, as with second-degree manslaughter instead.
“There is nothing inherent in the use of a power cord as a whipping instrument which would cause a serious physical injury as opposed to just merely a physical injury, unlike the use of a gun, sword, knife or even a grenade,” the appeal states.
“This failure to see any visible injuries on Lucas, other than blood on his pants, establishes a lack of proof that the Defendant had the intent to cause serious physical injury. Rather, a more reasonable view of the evidence establishes that by whipping Lucas with the cord, the Defendant, unknowingly, but recklessly caused a grave risk of serious physical injury with ultimately led to death.”
The appeal also notes that Ferguson wanted to get the police involved in the sex abuse investigation rather than let the church administer punishment.
“This is some further evidence that it was not the Defendant’s intent in using the power cord to cause serious physical injury, but it was her intent to punish the boy for a perceived wrong,” the appeal states.
As for the tainted grand jury claim, the appeal says the District Attorney’s Office called an expert on cult behavior to testify before the grand jury, but the grand jury minutes were denied to the defense.
“Thus, the Appellant has no information on how the People’s expert on cults was utilized, what opinions he gave and what instructions to the jury were given,” the appeal states.
“Here, without inspection of the Grand Jury minutes, there can be no inquiry into whether a foundation was laid that the expert testimony, whatever it consisted of, contained a scientific theory which was accepted as reliable within the scientific community.”