A judge Friday ordered a woman freed who is serving 10 years in prison for beating a 2-year-old boy to death--a headline-grabbing slaying that led to stricter statewide child abuse laws--declaring that a police reinvestigation of the evidence established a "compelling" case that she may be innocent.
Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Michael Hoff ruled that Eve Wingfield, 24, should be released immediately on her own recognizance in connection with the 1995 killing of her boyfriend's son, Lance Helms, in North Hollywood.
She has served 21 months of her sentence. A Los Angeles Police Department detective dug into medical evidence in the case. Her report, submitted to the court, concluded that Wingfield could not have been present when Lance was fatally beaten and identified the toddler's father as the prime suspect in the killing.
Wingfield last year pleaded no contest to a charge of child endangerment causing death, on the plea-bargain advice of her public defender who warned her that otherwise she risked being found guilty of murder.
The judge Friday allowed Wingfield to change her plea to not guilty to the original charge of murder. She was ordered back to court Oct. 27 for a pretrial hearing. It will be up to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office to decide whether to renew the prosecution.
Late Friday, Wingfield learned that she would still spend the weekend behind bars, said her attorney, Michael E. Goodman. A no-bail hold on her release had been filed by the Children's Court, where the custody of her two children is being decided, he said. Goodman said attorneys would be working over the weekend to secure Wingfield's release as soon as possible.
The boy's grandmother, Gail Helms, said the ruling "means they are finally going to get the person who is responsible for the murder of Lance Helms."
Outside of court, Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Slavitt, citing an ongoing criminal investigation, declined to comment on why no charges had been brought against David Helms, Lance's father. Police had asked last year that he be charged with the killing, according to the LAPD report submitted to the court.
The toddler's death led to criticism of the Los Angeles County Dependency Court and Department of Social Services, which returned him to the care of his father--with whom Wingfield lived, off and on--from the custody of his aunt. He had originally been turned over to the aunt because he was born drug addicted and both his parents had criminal records and drug habits, according to court records.
Spurred by the publicity given Lance's death, the Legislature in 1996 changed state law, mandating that the safety of the child be the prime factor in deciding whether to return children from abusive homes to their parents.
David Helms has "an extensive criminal record dating back to 1978," said the police report submitted to the court. After a bad conduct discharge from the Army, he had arrests and convictions for prostitution, burglary, narcotics and robbery, according to the report.
Wingfield met him at the age of 17, and he fathered two of her children, although Lance was born to a different mother, who was later sent to prison for armed robbery, the report said.
Lance suffered frequent physical and emotional abuse after the court returned him to her son's care, Gail Helms said in an interview.
"This was an easygoing, gentle little boy who in the 23 months of his life, lived with his aunt and thrived," she said.
"Then inexplicably he is ripped away from the only home he knew and placed in a violent and abusive environment."
She recounted how Lance would resist returning to his father's home after visits with the aunt. "Every time he had to go back . . . he would beg, cry and scream," she said. "Please, please please don't take me back," the boy would plead. "It's one of the saddest memories I have."
A beating in the abdomen killed Lance on Nov. 6, 1995. Wingfield had been caring for him in Helms' North Hollywood apartment. While she made a trip to a pawnshop, leaving him in his father's care, the boy died, all parties agree.
In testimony at a preliminary hearing after Wingfield's arrest, Dr. James Ribe, a senior pathologist with the Los Angeles County medical examiner's office, testified that the boy appeared to have died about 30 to 60 minutes after a severe beating, the time period when he was in Wingfield's care.
However, in the follow-up investigation by LAPD Det. Terry Lopez, Ribe revised that opinion, saying the boy succumbed "within a few minutes of being beaten." Police had already established that Wingfield was at the pawnshop at that time and Lance was being cared for by his father--the heart of the defense contention that Ribe's change of testimony proves Wingfield could not have killed the boy.
Because Wingfield had originally been counseled to plead guilty by a public defender, her case was taken on by the alternative public defender's office, an agency that handles defenses that may involve a conflict with the public defenders.
It was her new attorney, Goodman, who obtained Lopez's 31-page report and filed it with the court in June, asking Judge Hoff--the original trial judge--to nullify the conviction or order a new trial.