The case that exposed shortcomings in Los Angeles County's overburdened criminal justice and child welfare systems reached its conclusion Friday as a judge sentenced a Hollywood man to 21 years to life in prison for beating to death his 2 1/2-year-old son.
David Helms, 37, showed no emotion as Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Sandy R. Kriegler handed down the maximum sentence for the 1995 slaying--a crime for which Helms' girlfriend was originally imprisoned.
He appeared similarly unmoved when his mother, Gail Helms, showed a video of her grandson Lance and read a letter to the judge.
"I realize I will be losing another family member when David is sentenced, but it is the right thing to do," said Helms of her long campaign to have her son arrested.
"David has never taken responsibility for his actions. He robbed Lance of the only thing he ever wanted in this world--to be with the people who loved him, kept him safe and made him laugh."
Commented the judge: "Hopefully, this is an end to this very tragic saga . . . a great tragedy. We always teach our children that life is not fair. I guess in Lance's case that was proven at a very early age." The defendant, convicted by a jury last month of three felonies--including second-degree murder and child endangerment causing the death of a child--must serve at least 18 years before he is eligible for parole, according to prosecutors.
Helms would have received a stiffer 25-year sentence under new criminal penalties for child abuse passed by the state Legislature as a result of Lance's death. The case also led to changes in state child custody laws, requiring dependency courts to consider a child's safety more important than family reunification.
Outside court, Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor J. Hunter said "it spoke volumes" that Helms did not appear grief-stricken after his son's slaying and let blame for the crime fall on his then-22-year-old girlfriend, Eve Wingfield.
"You always hope there will be some type of remorse or anguish," Hunter said of the defendant's demeanor. "There was absolutely nothing there."
During the trial, Hunter argued that the defendant was a controlling, manipulative serial batterer.
Lance was born drug-addicted and placed in the care of his aunt, Ayn Helms, who prosecutors said was the only real mother the boy knew. But Helms regained custody of the child and beat him over a period of months before the toddler was killed by blows to his abdomen so powerful that medical experts likened the force to being hit by a car.
Lance was returned to his abusive father by a child welfare system that failed to safeguard him. Similarly, Wingfield wound up in prison after a series of errors, both in the initial investigation of Lance's death on April 6, 1995, and subsequent court proceedings.
Wingfield was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a public defender persuaded her to plead guilty to felony child endangerment, advising her that she faced a probable murder conviction if she did not accept a plea bargain.
The lawyer's advice was based on damaging testimony by Los Angeles County Medical Examiner James K. Ribe, who indicated that Lance had died 30 minutes to an hour after being beaten, which would have placed him at home with Wingfield.
But Ribe revised his conclusions when two LAPD detectives reinvestigated the killing, shifting the time of the fatal blows to a period when Lance was in the care of his father and Wingfield was not present. Her trial judge ordered her released last September after serving 21 months behind bars.
Delivering powerful testimony at Helms' trial, Ribe admitted to the jury that he changed his mind, calling his initial conclusion "just ridiculous." Ribe said he came to that conclusion after consulting experts and other sources to expand his knowledge of the medical issues involved, on his own time and at his expense.
After Friday's sentencing hearing, Helms' attorney Jack Stone said the changes in the doctor's testimony still raise doubt over Helms' guilt. "There were real issues in this case as to how long the child died after being hit," Stone said. "There were real questions whether it was my client or his girlfriend."
But the court records and witnesses told a different story.
Helms had "an extensive criminal record dating back to 1978," court documents show. In the Army, Helms was convicted of larceny and conspiracy, the report said. After a bad conduct discharge, Helms had more brushes with the law, including arrests and convictions for prostitution, burglary, narcotics and robbery.
Half a dozen trial witnesses testified they had heard or seen Helms abusing Lance. One recounted that he saw Helms hit the boy hard enough to knock him out of his stroller.
In her statement to the court, Gail Helms said her son wanted custody of Lance to exercise control over him and beat him to death out of jealousy.
"If David had given his son love and attention, Lance would have followed him around like a puppy, but David was not capable of that type of behavior," Helms said in a quiet but steady voice.
"Lance loved water from the time he was just a few months old. I was always giving him baths at my house . . . When I remember those times, if I close my eyes, I can still smell his hair and I can feel his face next to mine."