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Freed Woman Reluctant to Plead Guilty to New Charge

Courts: Original suspect in toddler's slaying is reluctant to accept deal, despite promise of credit for the prison time she has already served.

May 09, 1998|ANDREW BLANKSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VAN NUYS — A North Hollywood woman freed from a prison term in the beating death of a 2-year-old boy is reluctant to accept a deal from prosecutors in which they insist she again plead guilty to a felony, her lawyer said Friday.

Under the offer from the Los Angeles district attorney's office, Eve Wingfield, 25, would plead guilty to a single count of child endangerment causing great bodily injury stemming from the 1995 death of toddler Lance Helms, according to her attorney, Alternate Public Defender Michael E. Goodman.

In return, prosecutors told Goodman, she would be credited with the time she has already served in prison and would not be returned behind bars.

Last September, Wingfield was released from custody after 21 months in state prison when Superior Court Judge Michael Hoff ruled that new evidence from a Los Angeles Police Department report indicated she might be innocent.

"Initially, she considered accepting the offer because she wanted to avoid the risk of any more time in prison," Goodman said. "But based on the severity of the sentence and the impact a felony conviction would have on her life, she's now reconsidering her options."

Since Wingfield's release, her former boyfriend, David Helms--the dead boy's father--has been charged with murdering the child.

"In seeking to prosecute Eve Wingfield, the district attorney's office has been seeking to prosecute the wrong person," Goodman said. "And by seeking a guilty plea now, they are demonstrating their continued unwillingness to avoid the gravity or extent of their mistake."

The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor J. Hunter, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The boy's killing led to changes in state child abuse laws, requiring that judges place the safety of the child above a policy of family reunification.

It also resulted in a 10-year sentence for Wingfield when a public defender persuaded her to plead guilty to a charge of child endangerment causing death, saying that otherwise she might be found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

That advice came on the heels of damaging testimony at a preliminary hearing by the county's medical examiner, James K. Ribe, who indicated Lance Helms succumbed to his injuries 30 to 60 minutes after he was repeatedly hit in the stomach. That placed the fatal blows at a time when the toddler was under Wingfield's care in the apartment she shared with David Helms.

But Ribe subsequently gave a different version of events to LAPD detectives reinvestigating the killing. He told LAPD Det. Terry Lopez that the boy was almost instantly killed by his injuries, appearing to exonerate Wingfield, who was not in the apartment when the boy died. The report concluded that David Helms, who was caring for the boy at the time, was the primary suspect.

The LAPD report was released in November 1996. But it wasn't until the following September that Wingfield was ordered released on her own recognizance when the judge said there was a "compelling" case to reopen her trial.

After more delays, authorities last month arrested David Helms, who, according to family members and court documents, had a history of drug abuse, a criminal record dating back to the 1970s, and a penchant for punching his younger siblings in the abdomen--the type of blow that killed his son.

Helms, who pleaded not guilty, faces a preliminary hearing later this month.

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