Teen accused of killing son released to couple's custody

Charges still in place

she could stand trial

February 09, 2000|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

SALISBURY -- A year and a week after she was jailed in the death of her infant son, Erminia Escalante Berdugo walked out of the Wicomico County Detention Center yesterday -- into the waiting arms of supporters who have worked tirelessly for the Guatemalan teen-ager's release.

Last month, Berdugo was found incompetent to stand trial after two state health department psychologists determined her to have an IQ between 52 and 62.

Yesterday, she smiled and embraced David and Jeannie Lusby, the Queen Anne's County couple who have volunteered to become her guardians.

Berdugo ducked her head against a frigid morning breeze as she left the jail near Salisbury.

"I am happy, yes, happy," said Berdugo, who had little schooling in her native country and who speaks only rudimentary English.

Whisked toward a waiting car for a 90-minute drive to the Lusbys' rural home near the small town of Price, Berdugo clutched Jeannie Lusby's hand.

"We have waited so long for this," said Lusby. "She has seen far too much of jail. We want her to have the chance to live in a home, even if it is temporary."

Berdugo was accused of first- and second-degree murder and other charges on Feb. 2, 1999, after her 3 lb., 6-oz. premature baby was found dead in a trailer home she shared with relatives in rural Caroline County.

Prosecutors contend that the child was born alive and that Berdugo placed the baby in a plastic bag, failing to seek help or do anything to save the infant. The charges were not dropped, and if she is later found to be competent, Berdugo could be prosecuted in Maryland courts.

More than three weeks ago, District Court Judge William S. Horne ruled that because of her low IQ, vast cultural differences and limited language skills, Berdugo is not competent to aid in her own defense.

On Jan. 20, the 18-year-old, who grew up in a remote mountainous region of Guatemala and entered the U.S. illegally in 1998, was handed over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service and transferred from the Caroline County Detention Center to the Wicomico County jail.

The jail routinely houses as many as 125 INS prisoners awaiting possible deportation.

Berdugo's supporters, including the Lusbys, members of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Wilmington's Hispanic Mission Team and Annapolis attorney Thomas McCarthy Sr., have worked ever since to get her out of jail.

Late Monday, an INS judge, Lisa Dornell, ordered Berdugo released on her own recognizance after Jeannie Lusby testified that her family would take Berdugo into their home for as long as she wants to stay or as long as she is allowed to remain in the country.

Lusby, a Christian who works as a risk-management specialist at an Easton hospital, has visited Berdugo over the last year. After months of weekly jailhouse visits, Lusby said she and her husband decided last summer to offer to be Berdugo's legal guardians.

"I kept thinking that someone should help this girl, but I didn't know how," said Lusby, who has worked to refresh the four years of Spanish she took in high school. "We left everything in God's hands."

Lusby said her first priority is to find an educational program for Berdugo, who has picked up some English during her year in jail.

William Snavely, an administrator with the state Developmental Disabilities Administration -- which will supervise the arrangement -- said his agency would assist in finding programs.

"Frankly, this is a good family," Snavely said. "We are looking forward to working with them."

When David and Jeannie Lusby are at work, Berdugo will spend her days with their daughter, a homemaker who lives in Centreville.

A ruling on whether Berdugo will be deported could take months, said McCarthy, who took on the case after reading about it in the newspaper. A preliminary hearing is set for Monday in U.S. Immigration Court in Baltimore.

"This is not the end of anything; the INS is proceeding with deportation, and we will have to go through that process," said McCarthy. "But at least we have now gotten Erminia to a safe harbor. We'll start with that."

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