A woman accused of taking part in beatings at her upstate New York church — leaving one of half-brothers dead and another half-brother severely injured — was found guilty Tuesday of first-degree manslaughter.
Sarah Ferguson, the first of several members of the Word of Life Christian Church to go to trial, dodged a more serious second-degree murder conviction after the judge said she may not have realized what was happening internally to her 19-year-old half-brother, Lucas Leonard, during the Oct. 11 thrashing.
But Onedia County Judge Michael Dwyer also found Ferguson guilty of gang assault and first-degree assault. She waived her right to a jury trial.
Dwyer, in making his decision, said he weighed whether the 33-year-old woman knew there was a risk that Lucas Leonard could die — and consciously disregarded that, reported NBC affiliate WKTV.
The defense had argued that the boys were wearing clothes, and so Ferguson couldn't see the extent of their injures.
Prosecutors painted her as more ruthless.
"She showed total lack of care, disregard for Lucas' life. She chose to get a blanket and go to sleep after," District Attorney Scott McNamara said in closing arguments.
The arrests in the community of New Hartford, about 50 miles from Syracuse, have thrown a spotlight on Word of Life, a highly regimented and insular church that operated out of a large, red-brick former school that also served as a communal home for several members.
Prosecutors say the members of the church had been engaged in a therapy session for the Leonard brothers after a Sunday service when the beatings began.
Half-brother Christopher Leonard, 17, who survived the violence, had said in court testimony that Ferguson, his parents and other congregants took part.
The session, he added, was called after he admitted to inappropriately touching Ferguson's children, although claimed here was no actual sexual abuse.
Ferguson, however, had testified that both brothers said they raped one of her children.
Christopher Leonard said he was beat for at least six hours, and was hit with fists and whipped with a 4-foot, folded electrical cord on the back and elsewhere, suffering injuries to his torso and genitals.
Later, he said, he rushed over to Lucas on the floor in the sanctuary, noticed he wasn't breathing and tried with a church leader to revive him.
Ferguson is among nine relatives and church members charged in the beating death. The teens' parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, have already pleaded guilty in the case.
A lawyer for Deborah Leonard, the mother of Ferguson, has previously said she felt helpless to stop the "intervention," which she never expected to escalate.
Ferguson faces up to 25 years in prison for each offense, and will be sentenced in September.