Sep 6, 2019

Word of Life’s Ferguson appeals 2016 ruling

Jolene Cleaver
Utica Observer Dispatch
September 4, 2019

Oral arguments in the appeal of "People v. Sarah Ferguson" — a case that began with the 2015 fatal beating at a Chadwicks church — were held Wednesday morning in state appellate court in Rochester.

Ferguson seeks to appeal her sentence issued in 2016 by Oneida County Court Judge Michael Dwyer after a bench trial that led to her conviction for first-degree manslaughter, two counts of first-degree assault, and two counts of first-degree gang assault.

Ferguson was sentenced to 25 years in state prison for her role in the 14-hour round of beatings that killed her 19-year-old half brother Lucas Leonard and severely injured his brother Christopher Leonard, then 17, in October 2015 at Word of Life Church in Chadwicks.

A written decision on the future of the appeal — whether there are grounds for it to proceed — is expected from the court within two months, attorneys said.

The beatings took place during what was called a "counseling session" that included whipping of their genitals and other body parts using a power cord.

The Leonard brothers had been accused by their attackers — a group of nine people including Ferguson — of allegedly watching pornography, practicing witchcraft and plotting to murder their parents. Other accusations by the attackers included sexual abuse of nieces and nephews.

"None of that is true," said Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara of the allegations against the brothers.

Oral argument

On Wednesday, Ferguson's attorney Peter DiGiorgio Jr. largely focused his argument on the length of Ferguson's sentence — which he feels was excessive — as well as the lack of sufficient evidence to support her conviction.

"There is no question in the case at bar that the victim, Lucas, suffered a serious physical injury, as he, in fact, died from injuries he sustained by the defendant's actions," reads a court filing DiGiorgio prepared which outlined his appellate arguments.

DiGiorgio is focusing on whether the sufficiency and weight of the evidence establishes that Ferguson intended to inflict serious physical injury as opposed to recklessly engaging in conduct which ultimately caused Lucas Leonard's death.

″...There is nothing inherent in the use of a power cord as a whipping instrument which would cause a serious physical injury as opposed to just merely a physical injury, unlike the use of a gun, sword, knife or event a grenade," the filing continues in another portion.

Arguing on behalf of the prosecution was Oneida County Assistant District Attorney Steven Cox.

"They have the right to appeal. ... Obviously, we disagree with them," said McNamara of his office's position. He added that people often forget that there are two victims in the case — one who died and one who was severely beaten.

"The maximum sentence could have been 50 years," McNamara said.

Case history

Ferguson was found guilty after an eight-day bench trial before Dwyer, who also found her not guilty of an original count of second-degree murder.

According to O-D archives, Dwyer did not feel there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt that would support a second-degree murder conviction, but that the prosecution at trial proved Ferguson purposely caused serious physical injury with an electrical cord.

McNamara said the appellate court judges will review the trial transcripts in addition to weighing Wednesday's oral arguments before issuing a decision.

Contact reporter Jolene Cleaver at 315-792-4956 or follow her on Twitter (@OD_Cleaver).

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