10-Year Term for Death of Boy, 2, Is Criticized

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eve Wingfield was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in state prison for beating to death her boyfriend's 2-year-old son in a case that sparked statewide criticism of the child welfare system.

Wingfield, 23, of North Hollywood, had pleaded no contest to child abuse after a murder charge against her was dropped in a plea bargain last month.

But the sentence--she may be eligible for parole after serving about half her sentence--did little to satisfy the dead boy's grandmother, Gail Helms, an outspoken critic of child welfare laws and the Los Angeles district attorney's office.

"There hasn't been closure," said Helms, who did not attend the sentencing at Superior Court. "I've been doing a lot of crying. I've been very distraught."

The case set off criticism of the child welfare system during the past several months by parties from little Lance Helms' loved ones to local legislators. It also generated criticism of the county's dependency court system, which oversees the well-being of thousands of children.

Several critics called for changes in state law regarding the care of abused and neglected children. The county Board of Supervisors vowed to make the dependency court process more responsive to child safety. Lance, who was living with his father, David Helms, was not removed from that home despite warnings from social workers and relatives.

On the day her murder trial was to begin last month, Wingfield pleaded no contest to a charge of child abuse with the special allegation that the abuse resulted in Lance's death April 6.

The plea bargain infuriated many of the boy's relatives and family supporters who wanted a murder conviction, and left the prosecution explaining the difficulty of trying child abuse cases as homicides.

On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Michael Hoff sentenced Wingfield to the maximum provided under the charges. She is expected to serve six years for the child abuse plus four more years because the boy died.

"That was the agreed-upon sentence," said Martin L. Herscovitz, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case. "There was little discussion."

Herscovitz has said the plea bargain was appropriate because it may have been extremely difficult to persuade a jury to convict Wingfield of murder. In cases of fatally injured children, juries often find defendants guilty of manslaughter, which would have meant less prison time for Wingfield, he said.

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In addition, Herscovitz said, the case featured no adult witnesses and depended a great deal on circumstantial evidence surrounding the boy's death from several blows to the abdomen. Among the reasons for the plea bargain was that the only witness was Lance's 4-year-old brother, Calvin, he said.

Deputy Public Defender Joel Wallenstein said the sentence Wednesday was exactly what he and Wingfield expected from the judge.

"She's obviously unhappy about having to do a prison term," Wallenstein said. "She's accepted it as being the best course of action."

Wallenstein said he explained to his client that a murder conviction would have resulted in a life sentence. Under those circumstances, she may have been eligible for parole after more than a dozen years in prison, but more likely would have spent as many as 20 years to life behind bars, he said.

"Certainly, that was something that was taken into consideration," he said.

Court testimony showed that Lance, who was born addicted to drugs, was taken from his drug-addicted natural parents by county workers.

The boy's aunt, Ayn Helms, who died in September of complications from lupus, gained custody of Lance. The boy's father, David Helms, also sought and won custody by an order of the county dependency court after completing a drug rehabilitation program.

Now Gail Helms and others are vowing to continue their struggle to help keep more children from suffering the tragic end that Lance did.

"Nothing I ever do is going to bring Lance back. It's terrible," Gail Helms said. "You either sit and wallow in it or you get on with it. I have to really fight this."

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