On Tuesday, a judge found Sarah Ferguson not guilty of second-degree murder, but guilty of first-degree manslaughter, first-degree assault, and first-degree gang assault for her role in a mass beating that left her 19-year-old half-brother Lucas Leonard dead and her 17-year-old half-brother Christopher Leonard severely injured.
Sentencing is set for September 1, Syracuse.com reports. Ferguson, 30, faces up to 50 years in prison. Altogether, nine defendants associated with the Word of Life Christian Church were charged in the October 11, 2015 beating. The two boys’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, have already taken plea deals.
“The court does not feel there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant was aware of the risk of Lucas’ death,” Judge Michael Dwyer said from the bench. “Therefore, the court must find the defendant not guilty of the first count of the indictment-murder in the second degree.”
“The defendant and others caused this to happen, but there is no proof this defendant knew what was happening internally to Lucas,” the judge said.
New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra told NBC affiliate WKTV that he was pleased with the verdict. “I think it brings justice to both Lucas and Christopher. It holds one of the main defendants in this case responsible for the severe beating that was issued,” he said.
“I think it’s about the boys wanting to leave the church,” the chief continued, offering his interpretation of what motivated the beating. “The information we’ve developed through this case has shown that every time a member has tried to leave the church, the church finds a reason to confront the individual wanting to leave.”
The beating was allegedly organized by the church’s pastor, Tiffanie Irwin. According to prosecutors, she accused the boys of practicing witchcraft, plotting to kill their parents, and molesting children in the church. The surviving Christopher Leonard testified last week that he and his brother had touched their younger sister and their cousins inappropriately, but that they had not raped them.