Child's death yields 30-year term

Dundalk mother, 26, gets the maximum sentence in abuse-case fatality of her 3-year-old

May 05, 2006|By JENNIFER MCMENAMIN | JENNIFER MCMENAMIN,SUN REPORTER

Calling the 3-year-old boy "an innocent who died only because he happened to be born to Denise Lechner," a Baltimore County judge sentenced the Dundalk woman yesterday to 30 years in prison for child abuse that resulted in the death of her toddler.

Prosecutors had asked for the lengthy term - the maximum allowed by state law for child abuse - in an effort to prevent Lechner, 26, from having more children.

"It cannot go unsaid. She can't even be responsible for herself let alone someone else," prosecutor Susan H. Hazlett told Circuit Judge Ruth A. Jakubowski. "We just can't take that risk."

The announcement of the judge's sentence capped an emotional hearing that included testimony about the horrific childhood that Lechner suffered, including years of being raped weekly by her father - abuse that a forensic psychiatrist said has left the her "psychologically numb."

The prosecutor also berated Lechner's husband, Roy Lechner Sr., who she said ignored signs that his wife might be causing Roy Jr.'s repeated injuries and continued to work more than 70 hours a week, often leaving his wife alone with their children, even after promising a judge in child protection court proceedings that he would take responsibility for the toddler's care.

"The relationship that [Denise Lechner] has with her husband is toxic," Hazlett said in court. "I think it's safe to say that while Roy Lechner bears no legal responsibility for his son's death under the laws of this state, he bears a moral responsibility."

Outside the courthouse after yesterday's hearing, Roy Lechner Sr., 61, said that might be true.

"I feel it. I really do," he said. "I don't know what to say about it. I did everything I could to protect my boys."

On the day Roy Jr. died in March 2005, Denise Lechner told police that her son was being noisy and she swatted his bottom, causing him to tumble down the basement stairs. She told detectives that she carried him upstairs to the couch, gave him a pillow and covered him with a blanket before returning to the basement to work on her computer, according to charging documents.

But prosecutors said yesterday that at least two neighbors told police that they were awakened by loud thumping noises from the Lechners' rowhouse.

One neighbor said it sounded like someone falling down stairs and an adult going back up, three or four times in a row, prosecutor Corry Nastro said. Another neighbor who heard someone running up and down the Lechners' steps followed by crying knocked on the family's door, only to be told by Denise Lechner that Roy Jr. had fallen but was OK.

Less than an hour later, Nastro said, police responding to Denise Lechner's 911 call found the toddler to be "blue and lifeless."

"She was on the computer, working out details for a cruise, while her son was upstairs dying on a couch," Hazlett told the judge.

The toddler's death followed more than 150 visits from social workers and the November 2004 death of the Lechners' younger child, 6-month-old Donald, which was classified as sudden unexplained death in infancy. The medical examiner could not determine whether his death was due to natural causes, an accident or a homicide.

The medical examiner who conducted Roy Jr.'s autopsy listed the toddler's fall down the steps, his asthma, a seizure, an untreated strep throat infection and asphyxiation due to smothering as possible causes of death. He similarly could not attribute the boy's death to natural causes, an accident or a homicide.

Dr. Neil H. Blumberg, a forensic psychiatrist called to testify for the defense, told the judge that the years of abuse Denise Lechner suffered, her bipolar disorder, a cognitive disorder, a learning disability and limited intellectual functioning left her incapable of caring for her children.

Defense attorney Larry Polen told the judge that his client "did not intend to harm Roy Jr." Rather, he said, she lacks a motherly instinct possessed by most women who become parents.

"She lacks these things because they were taken from her," he said.

Denise Lechner declined an opportunity to address the judge.

She must serve seven to 10 years in prison before she will be eligible for a parole hearing, prosecutors said. Defendants convicted of crimes of violence must serve half their sentence before becoming eligible for a parole hearing, but child abuse resulting in a death is not considered a violent crime under Maryland law.

jennifer.mcmenamin@baltsun.com

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