VAN NUYS — A North Hollywood woman, freed from prison in the beating death of a 2-year-old boy, pleaded no contest to felony charges in the same crime Friday, over the objections of her lawyer that prosecutors coerced her into a bad decision.
Eve Wingfield, who served two years before being released by a judge who said new evidence indicated she may be innocent, pleaded no contest to one count of felony child abuse, a lesser charge than she accepted in her previous plea.
Her case--involving the 1995 beating death of Lance Helms, son of her former boyfriend--ignited widespread criticism of Los Angeles dependency court and led to changes in state child abuse laws.
After Wingfield's release from prison last September, the boy's father, David Helms, was arrested on suspicion of killing the toddler by punching him in the stomach.
But the Los Angeles County district attorney's office refused to drop charges against Wingfield, saying she shared responsibility for the boy's death, even if she was not present when he was beaten.
Dressed in a black suit with her blond hair coiled tightly in a bun, the 25-year-old former nursing student displayed no emotion as she accepted the prosecutor's final plea bargain offer.
She will be sentenced next month to the time she has already served and placed on probation.
In what court officials described as a highly unusual move, Wingfield's attorney, alternate public defender Michael E. Goodman, refused to join in the plea and told Superior Court Judge Michael Hoff his client had "no choice in the case."
"We entered into this plea because Eve believed it was in her best interest to avoid trial," Goodman said, after his client's brief court appearance. "But neither she nor I have ever--or will ever--admit that she is factually or legally responsible for Lance Helms' death in any way."
Goodman also criticized prosecutors who he said "mishandled the case from the moment they filed charges and they are continuing to mishandle it today. Their continued mishandling of the case puts their prosecution of David Helms at risk as well."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor J. Hunter disagreed, saying she was prepared to go to trial to prove Wingfield had been guilty of a crime by allowing Lance Helms to be abused in the North Hollywood apartment she shared with his father.
"I think what she pled to is what she was guilty of," Hunter said outside the courtroom. "I think by pleading, she did take responsibility for her conduct."
Goodman replied, "She's not taking responsibility for this. She was coerced into this by the district attorney's office, which was unwilling to admit the extent of its prior mistake."
Eve Wingfield was 17 when she met David Helms. He fathered two of her children, although Lance was born to a different mother who was later sent to prison for armed robbery, authorities 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, under legal requirements favoring the unification of families. After the boy's death, the Legislature amended the law to require that the child's safety take precedence in such custody decisions.
In 1996, on the advice of a public defender who believed that prosecutors had irrefutable evidence that would get her convicted of murder, Wingfield pleaded no contest to felony child endangerment causing death and received a 10-year state prison sentence.
That advice was based on damaging testimony by Dr. James K. Ribe, a senior deputy medical examiner with the Los Angeles County coroner's office, who testified at Wingfield's preliminary hearing that Lance had been beaten while in Wingfield's care, 30 to 60 minutes before he succumbed to blows so severe they split his liver.
Prosecutors used that testimony to argue that Wingfield must have carried out the crime on April 6, 1995, at Helms' apartment in the 11600 block of Oxnard Street.
After Wingfield went to prison, Gail Helms--mother of David Helms and grandmother of the dead boy--campaigned for a police investigation of her son, who she said had a history of family violence--especially punching people in the stomach--and a long criminal record.
When detectives reinvestigated, Ribe shifted the estimated time of Lance's death to moments after he was hit, a period when Lance was in the care of his father and Wingfield was out of the apartment redeeming jewelry at a nearby pawnshop.
"David Helms was the last adult to have care and custody of Lance Helms, during the time period immediately prior to his death," said a report by Terry Lopez, a Los Angeles Police Department detective who reinvestigated the case after Wingfield went to prison.
The report alleged that "Helms used his fist to repeatedly strike Lance Helms with tremendous force in the abdominal area, causing massive internal injuries and death."
The report also indicated that Helms had "an extensive criminal record dating back to 1978," including arrests and convictions for prostitution, burglary, narcotics and robbery. In the Army, Helms was convicted of larceny and conspiracy and given a bad conduct discharge.
After receiving the report, Judge Hoff ordered Wingfield released on her own recognizance, saying there was a "compelling" case to reopen her trial.
Gail Helms said she did not disagree with Wingfield's second plea.
"I believe there's culpability on Eve's part," she said Friday. "I've said she didn't kill Lance, but I believe she did abuse him. With this out of the way, I think we're on our way toward justice for Lance."