Mom Pleads Guilty in Fatal Church Beating But Won't Face Manslaughter Charges

An Upstate New York woman pleaded guilty this week to charges she participated in an all-night group beating as part of a church "counseling session" that led to the death of her teenage son in October.

Deborah Leonard described a 12-hour beating, which she said took place in the insular Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, to a Utica County courtroom on Wednesday, the Associated Press reports.

She said she struck her 19-year-old son Lucas Leonard, as well as his younger brother Christopher, with an extension cord as part of the beatings. The beatings began after her older son said he wanted to leave the church, she said.

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“The session turned physical,” New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra said during an October press conference. “Both brothers were continually subjected to physical punishment over the course of several hours in hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness.”

Relatives brought Lucas Leonard to St. Luke’s Hospital October 12 after they found he wasn’t breathing, Inserra said. He was pronounced dead at the hospital and medical personnel called the cops because some of the injuries were so serious they were mistaken for a possible gunshot wound.

"I hit them with my open hand and punched them," Deborah Leonard testified on Wednesday. Authorities said the teens were both beaten in the torso and genitals.

Leonard and her husband Bruce Leonard were initially charged with manslaughter.

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Deborah Leonard no longer faces manslaughter charges. Instead, she's pleaded guilty to assault as part of a plea deal that could require her to testify against her husband, daughter and six other church members and leaders charged in the death of Lucas Leonard and assault on 17-year-old Christopher, the AP reported.

Last week, a grand jury upgraded charges against Bruce Leonard and the victims' half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, to murder. The jury also added charges including kidnapping, assault and gang assault.

The church's pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, who Deborah Leonard said was considered a sort of prophet, was also charged along with her mother, Traci Irwin, and brother, Joseph Irwin.

Mother and son church members Linda and David Morey were also charged.

All have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.

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