A Pennsylvania woman who beat her pregnant neighbor with a baseball bat and then drove her to a wooded area and tried to cut the baby from her belly had her sentence reduced by nearly half by a judge who says the defendant's original guilty plea was flawed.
In 2005, Peggy Jo Conner, then 38, attacked Valerie Oskin, who was 30 and in her third trimester of pregnancy. The women lived next door to each other, in trailer homes in a hard-scrabble area outside Ford City, about 40 miles from Pittsburgh.
Police said Conner had told people she was pregnant, but she was not.
The details of the crime were particularly gruesome: Prosecutors said that after beating Oskin with a bat, Conner put Oskin and Oskin's 7-year-old son in her car, dropped the boy off at a relative's home, and drove Oskin to a secluded area about 15 miles away. Then, she allegedly used a razor to cut into Oskin's abdomen, using the victim's previous Cesarean scar as a guide.
Police said Oskin probably would have bled to death if not for a teenage boy's arrival on the scene. The boy was riding an ATV when he spotted Conner and the bleeding Oskin. He rushed home and alerted his father, who called police. Conner was arrested at the scene; Oskin later gave birth to a baby boy, who survived.
Conner pleaded guilty in 2007 to attempted murder with the intent to commit "serious bodily injury," and she was sentenced to 22 to 50 years in prison. But on Wednesday, a judge agreed that the plea had been flawed because Conner did not fully understand what she was admitting to, nor was she aware of sentencing guidelines mandating such a long sentence.
Judge Kenneth Valasek of Armstrong County reduced the sentence to 12 1/2 to 31 years, and Conner will be eligible for parole in 5 1/2 years, according to the Leader Times, which covered Wednesday's court ruling.
During an appeal hearing last year, Conner, now 45, said her attorney had erred in telling her to plead guilty to a charge of attempted murder with the element of "serious bodily injury," but she said she was too confused at the time to realize the mistake. "My [attorney] told me to sign that paper and plead ... so I trusted him and I did," she said at the time.
Among other things, Conner argued that she was on medication that had fogged her judgment when she entered the plea, and that her attorney at the time failed to explore the possibility of an insanity defense or warn her of the lengthy jail term mandated by her plea.
In court Wednesday, Conner apologized for her actions and said, "I'm not the same person I was." Conner's public defender, Charles Pascal, agreed, and said a forensic psychologist had found that Conner was unlikely to commit another crime. Prosecutors opposed the lesser sentence and said they might appeal.
The crime occurred less than a year after a case in Missouri in which Bobbie Jo Stinnett was strangled and her baby was cut from her womb. Stinnett had been eight months pregnant when she became online friends with Lisa Montgomery, through their shared love of rat terriers. Police determined that Montgomery, who lived in Kansas, visited Stinnett under the ruse of wanting to buy a rat terrier from her, then strangled the woman, stole the baby and fled.
Montgomery and the baby girl were found in Kansas. The child survived; Montgomery was convicted of kidnapping and murder and is on death row.
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