Dec 20, 2016

Pastor, brother sentenced in Word of Life case

The pastor of a Chadwicks church accused of calling a counseling session that led to the death of one teen and injury of another tried to evade her sentencing Monday, claiming that her case was improperly handled.

December 19, 2016
By Observer-Dispatch

UTICA - The pastor of a Chadwicks church accused of calling a counseling session that led to the death of one teen and injury of another tried to evade her sentencing Monday, claiming that her case was handled improperly.

Word of Life Christian Church Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, 30, who has not admitted to any criminal wrongdoing in court, attempted to withdraw her previous Alford plea to first-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault in the October 2015 death of Lucas Leonard, 19, and severe injury of Christopher Leonard, now 18.

In doing so, she claimed she was denied a fair trial and judge, that her plea was coerced, that the case's top prosecutor violated a gag order and that a grand jury witness's testimony was "so prejudicial" it should have caused the case to be thrown out.

Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara meanwhile, said Tiffanie Irwin's actions illustrated "how manipulative she is."

Irwin started her sentencing by saying she was "deeply sorry" about what happened to Lucas and Christopher Leonard. She argued that the beating was a spontaneous event and that she was "incapable of reacting" to what she saw.

"I have been denied my rights to a fair trial, to a fair and impartial jury, and a fair and impartial judge," Irwin said. "I was forced to plea so that my friends Linda and David Morey and my brother Joseph Irwin could enter their pleas. When our offers were changed so they could not accept their offers unless I pled guilty, I was forced to give an Alford plea. I wish to withdraw my plea which was coerced."

Irwin has been accused of leading the counseling session and the "authoritarian" church with a combination of mind control and belief that she could communicate with God. She said she wanted to withdraw her plea and take her case to trial so she could "set the record straight."

Dwyer, after a period of back-and-forth with Irwin, told her that she had not established any legal reason for her to be able to withdraw her plea.

"I think you've demonstrated to everybody that your statement of remorse is just that: a statement," Dwyer said. "There's no feeling attached to it. That's my opinion."

She was sentenced to a total of 12 years in state prison. Her brother Joseph Irwin also was sentenced Monday to a total eight years in state prison on charges of first-degree gang assault and second-degree assault.

Kristel Leonard Lindsey - the victims' oldest sister - addressed the court prior to sentencing.

"The only solace I have is I am not God," Lindsey said. "I do not get to choose who will go and who will stay, who will be martyred and who will continue to fight here. Luke's frank, courageous heart and buoyant spirit triumphed. Without a doubt, Tiffanie had absolute authority over the disorderly rage that ended with Luke's death. I spent several years under her personal control. What she did between Oct. 11 and 12, 2015, has given new meaning to the expression, 'Even the devil comes as an angel of light.' I am disgusted that I ever accepted Tiffanie to be my pastor, my spiritual leader."

Lindsey also addressed Joseph Irwin, describing him as the church's "enforcer" and requested that he be prohibited from ever seeing her or her family again.

Joseph Irwin spoke directly to Lindsey during plea proceedings; he said he would have changed everything if he could have.

"I'm sorry that I didn't stop it that day and I'll have to live with that for the rest of my life," he said.

McNamara said the Irwin siblings - the two "most culpable" people in the church - are going to serve less time than co-defendant Bruce Leonard, father of the victims, who admitted to whipping the teens with an electrical cord and was sentenced to 15 years in state prison. Tiffanie Irwin led the counseling session while Joseph Irwin punched the teens and admitted to knowing that Lucas Leonard was "bleeding profusely" prior to his death, McNamara said.

"(Tiffanie) dropped the bomb," McNamara said. "She caused the explosion and as with any group leader, they can get people to do stuff without giving the exact order. We've seen movies to that. We've seen real-life examples of that. She called the code red. It was understood if Bruce Leonard wanted to go to heaven, he had to get his children under control. That's what he needed to do. So I feel bad for him, I feel bad for the Leonard family. They are all victims of the Irwins."

Defense attorney Kurt Schultz, meanwhile, said he was now under a "self-imposed gag order" as he works on appealing Dwyer's decision in order to take his client's case to trial. He said he expected to file the appeal sometime this week.

Are allegations by Irwin justified?

As part of Tiffanie Irwin's efforts to withdraw her guilty plea Monday, she described a number reasons why she believed she should be able to take her case to trial.

Her accusations include: that she was denied a fair trial and a fair judge, that her plea was coerced as a result of the requirements of her plea offer, that the case's top prosecutor violated a gag order and that a grand jury witness's testimony was "so prejudicial" it should have caused the case to be thrown out.

The grand jury witness was not identified in court, but motions previously filed by Irwin's attorney, Kurt Schultz, indicate that Cult Education Institute founder and Executive Director Rick Ross is the expert in question. Irwin alleged that Ross is a "convicted felon" and alleged that he was called to testify to show the Word of Life Christian Church is a cult.

Oneida County Scott McNamara said that the witness - who he did not name - didn't give his opinion on whether the church was a cult, but instead explained how authoritarian groups could control people.

"We've seen that historically with people like Charles Manson and Jim Jones, hence the saying: 'Getting someone to drink the Kool-aid,'" McNamara said. "Most people don't understand that concept without it being explained by someone who would have some superior knowledge. That's why that person was called, regardless of whether he's a convicted felon or not. The question I would say back to Tiffany is this: In the future, should she be denied the ability to testify because she is a convicted felon?"

As to the alleged violation of the case's gag order, McNamara said the case's gag order initially started out as a code of ethics for all attorneys to follow that prohibited them from discussing the facts of the case. He called her accusations that he didn't abide by it a "total fabrication" and noted he got permission from the judge before talking to the media.

Irwin's attorney, Kurt Schultz, meanwhile, maintains otherwise. He is working on appealing the judge's decision.

"I am firmly convinced and told by the judge that there was a gag order in place since the inception of the case," Schultz said. "Her whole point today was that she was coerced into a plea so her remaining co-defendants could enter the plea, they would not accept it unless she fell on her sword first."

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