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Report Raises Questions in Child-Abuse Conviction

Law: Attorney says information proves innocence of woman imprisoned for toddler's beating death.

September 11, 1997|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — Armed with a police report he says will prove her innocence, an attorney will ask a judge Friday to free a North Hollywood woman who is serving a 10-year prison term for the notorious beating death of a 2-year-old boy that led to changes in state child abuse laws.

The killing of Lance Helms ignited widespread criticism of Los Angeles County's child welfare system two years ago and resulted in stronger state laws to protect children in abusive homes.

Alternative public defender Michael E. Goodman says the 31-page report by the Los Angeles Police Department will exonerate his client, Eve Wingfield, 24. The police report says Wingfield was apparently not present at the time the boy suffered fatal injuries and identifies David Helms, the boy's father and Wingfield's former boyfriend, as the current suspect in the toddler's death in North Hollywood in 1995.

Helms has not been arrested or charged with any crime. But the report shows that police unsuccessfully requested the district attorney's office last November to file murder charges against him in his son's death, and the DA's office refers to the case as an ongoing investigation.

Helms was not available for comment.

Wingfield pleaded guilty to felony child endangerment last January at the urging of a public defender who believed the Los Angeles County district attorney had irrefutable evidence against her that would lead to her conviction on a murder charge, Goodman said.

That evidence included testimony at Wingfield's preliminary hearing by Dr. James Ribe, a senior pathologist with the Los Angeles County medical examiner's office.

Ribe testified that the boy was repeatedly beaten in the abdomen, causing his death 30 to 60 minutes later, court documents show.

But in a follow-up investigation by the LAPD 11 months after Wingfield was sent to prison, Ribe revised that testimony, telling detectives the boy would have died "within a few minutes" of being beaten.

The report does not say why Ribe changed his conclusion. He could not be reached for comment.

The change in the time frame bolstered Wingfield's contention that she was at a pawnshop in the crucial minutes leading up the boy's death. The report also implicates Helms, the only adult who was with the boy in that time period, as "the perpetrator."

"The original investigation appeared flawed," Goodman said, adding, "When the medical examiner made his initial conclusion, he did so without a complete picture."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Slavitt would not comment on the new evidence, citing the continuing investigation.

Goodman, meanwhile, said he would ask Van Nuys Superior Court Judge Michael Hoff at a hearing Friday to nullify the conviction or release Wingfield pending a new trial.

At 6:31 p.m. on April 6, 1995, paramedics were called to Helms' apartment in the 11600 block of Oxnard Street in North Hollywood. There they found the 2-year-old on the floor in the apartment with no pulse.

Helms told authorities his son "was conscious, talking and drinking water" shortly before he died, said the report prepared by 14-year LAPD Det. Terry Lopez and submitted to the court by Wingfield's attorney in June.

The original prosecution contention against Wingfield was that she beat the boy and he died after she left the apartment to visit a pawnshop.

Detectives established that Wingfield was at the pawnshop for 15 to 25 minutes before returning to the apartment, by which time Lance was dead.

The new medical evidence, however, showed the boy "suffered fatal injuries that were instantly incapacitating, leading to rapid death," Lopez's report stated. "Once Lance suffered these injuries, he would not have been able to move, talk, or do any activity," it says.

Wingfield's attorney argues that if the boy was conscious and talking when she left the apartment and the medical evidence shows that the toddler died within minutes of being beaten, then she could not have been the killer.

"David Helms was the last adult to have care and custody of Lance Helms, during the time period immediately prior to his death," Lopez's report states, alleging that "Helms used his fist to repeatedly strike Lance Helms with tremendous force in the abdominal area, causing massive internal injuries and death."

Helms has "an extensive criminal record dating back to 1978," the police report said. 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 involving prostitution, burglary, narcotics and robbery, the report says.

Eve Wingfield met David Helms at age 17, and he fathered two of her children; Lance was born to a different mother who was later sent to prison for armed robbery, the report said.

Lance, born drug-addicted, was taken by the Department of Children's Services from his drug-addicted parents and placed in the care of his aunt, Ayn Helms. But David Helms later sought and won custody of the boy. Wingfield, a former nursing student, lived with Helms off and on and shared care for the boy.

During their relationship, the report cited numerous incidents of spousal abuse by David Helms including punches "causing black eyes," and instances where he "shoved her against dressers, bookcases and beds."

Wingfield's attorney praised Lopez for continuing to work to clarify the case even after Wingfield had been sentenced. "It was police work above and beyond the call of duty," Goodman said.

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