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Woman Sent to Prison in Killing Ordered Freed

Courts: Judge says police reinvestigation shows the 24-year-old may be innocent in North Hollywood beating death of 2-year-old.


VAN NUYS — A judge Friday ordered freed from prison a woman serving 10 years for beating to death a 2-year-old boy--a headline slaying that led to stricter state 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 ordered Eve Wingfield, 24, released immediately on her own recognizance in connection with the 1995 killing of her boyfriend's son, Lance Helms, in North Hollywood.

She had served 21 months of her sentence. A Los Angeles Police Department detective dug into medical evidence in the case, and her report, submitted to the court, concluded 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 her 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 district attorney's office to decide whether to renew the prosecution.

Late Friday, however, Wingfield learned she would still spend the weekend behind bars, her attorney, Michael E. Goodman, said. 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.

"Eve and I are both very disappointed by this unexpected glitch in her release," Goodman said. "But we are hopeful we can clear up this problem by Monday so she can be released as soon as possible. We'll be working all weekend to secure her release."

The victim's grandmother, Gail Helms, said, "This decision means they are finally going get the person who is responsible for the murder of Lance Helms."

Outside court, Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Slavitt, citing an ongoing criminal investigation, declined to comment on why no charges had been brought against David Helms. 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 the Department of Social Services, which returned the child to the care of his father--with whom Wingfield had lived off and on--from the custody of his aunt. The child had initially 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.

Helms has "an extensive criminal record dating back to 1978," the police report submitted to the court 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, according to the report.

Wingfield met David Helms at the age of 17 and he fathered two of her children, though 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, she said. "I want to stay with you, I want to stay you."

"It's one of the saddest memories I have," she said.

Her son had a habit as a child of punching his brothers and sisters in the abdomen when he lost his temper, Gail Helms said.

It was a beating in the abdomen that killed Lance on Nov. 6, 1995. Wingfield had been caring for Lance 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 to a preliminary hearing following 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.

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