Mother guilty of abuse in death

Plea enables Dundalk woman, 26, to avoid murder charge

her toddler died in March

October 25, 2005|By LAURA BARNHARDT | LAURA BARNHARDT,SUN REPORTER

The Dundalk woman charged with child abuse that resulted in the death of her 3-year-old son - just months after the unexplained death of her infant son - avoided a potential murder prosecution by pleading guilty yesterday to the most serious abuse charge against her.

As a result of Denise Lechner's guilty plea, Baltimore County prosecutors said yesterday that they will not seek an indictment charging the 26-year-old woman with second-degree murder.

Prosecutors said they plan to seek the maximum sentence - 30 years in prison - for Lechner, who was regularly visited by county social workers concerned about her parenting skills before the death of her son Roy Lechner Jr. in March.

Less serious child abuse charges and a District Court case, charging Lechner with neglecting Roy Jr. and her 6-month-old son, who died in November, were dismissed yesterday.

During the short proceeding in Baltimore County Circuit Court yesterday morning, Assistant State's Attorney Sue Hazlett said the medical examiner could not conclude the cause of Roy Jr.'s death.

"There were a number of scenarios that could have resulted in his death," Hazlett said, adding that the medical examiner found the boy had an untreated strep throat infection, had not been fed properly and had injuries suggesting asphyxiation as a possible cause of death.

Hazlett said that a grand jury might have indicted Lechner on a second-degree murder charge but that the possible penalty - a 30-year prison sentence - was the same as the charge of child abuse resulting in death, to which Lechner pleaded guilty yesterday.

For prosecutors, yesterday's plea agreement means they will not have to go to trial or present evidence to a grand jury with inconclusive findings on the child's cause of death. For Lechner, the plea allows her to avoid risking being found guilty of multiple counts of child abuse, which could carry consecutive sentences, and a trial at which prosecutors would have presented graphic photos of her injured children and testimony of their abuse over many months.

An autopsy on Lechner's 6-month-old son, Donald Wayne Lechner, also was inconclusive, listing the baby's death as "sudden unexplained death in infancy," said Bill Toohey, a spokesman for county police.

When Roy Jr. died, detectives re-investigated Donald's death, Toohey said. No charges were issued and the case has been closed, Toohey said yesterday. The investigation would only be reopened if police receive new information or evidence in the case, he said.

Lechner was convicted in 2001 of endangering Roy Jr. as an infant in her home state of Ohio.

Lechner's defense attorney, Larry Polen, said his client suffers from depression and was the victim of abuse when she was younger. "I don't think she intentionally tried to harm her child," Polen said. "I think there are definitely emotional issues involved."

She will undergo a psychiatric evaluation ordered yesterday by Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski before sentencing, which has not been scheduled.

Lechner answered Jakubowski's questions about her guilty plea in a soft voice and did not acknowledge the presence of her 60-year-old husband, Roy Lechner Sr.

Roy Lechner Sr. abruptly left the courtroom as the proceedings began. By telephone, he later said he was disappointed by the plea agreement. "I thought it should've been more. She'll probably get less time than she would've," he said, adding that he still misses his sons.

"I've talked to her. She doesn't say anything - that's she's sorry, nothing," said Roy Lechner Sr., a truck driver. "She shows no emotions."

Baltimore County social workers visited the family's Dundalk home more than 150 times in the two years before Roy Jr. died. They suspected abuse but didn't feel they had conclusive evidence that the boy was in danger, county social services officials have said.

In August 2004, Denise Lechner was charged with negligence by Baltimore County police, who said she left both boys in a car while she was in a store. Those charges were among those dismissed by prosecutors yesterday as part of the plea agreement.

In November, after Donald stopped breathing and was taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, he was placed briefly in foster care, and county social workers unsuccessfully sought a court order to keep him there. A day after being returned home, Donald died.

Despite "significant concerns" about the abilities of the parents, the agency determined in the days after Donald's death that Roy Jr. should remain in the family home. The agency recommended that the boy be under his grandmother's care there and that Denise Lechner have no unsupervised caretaking responsibilities.

A report by the county Department of Social Services says the agency agreed in February on a plan to allow Roy Jr. to stay with his parents, pointing out that lawyers for the mother and the child were opposed to any court-ordered role for DSS and that a court hearing could have led to the agency having no involvement with the family.

Under the agreement, Denise Lechner was to receive a psychiatric evaluation and any needed treatment.

Eighteen days later, Roy Jr. was dead.

Denise Lechner told county police that the child had fallen down a flight of stairs. But Hazlett said that medical evidence and neighbors' accounts - some said they heard repeated banging on the steps the afternoon Roy Jr. died - don't support the woman's explanation.

laura.barnhardt@baltsun.com

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