Legler's death ruled homicide

Relates to:
Date: 2004-08-21
Source: goerie.com

District Attorney could charge adoptive mother with manslaughter

LISA THOMPSON

Authorities are considering charging Brittany Legler's adoptive mother with manslaughter after the Erie County coroner ruled Legler's death a homicide on Friday.

Coroner Lyell Cook said that "stress of the brutality and the threat of physical abuse" coupled with Legler's congenital heart defect caused her to suffer a fatal heart attack on May 9.

District Attorney Brad Foulk's office had been awaiting the ruling to determine whether homicide charges were warranted against Legler's mother, Lisa M. Iarussi, who is accused of severely beating her adopted daughter in the 29 months leading up to her death.

Foulk declined to comment Friday on how the coroner's ruling will affect the criminal case pending against Iarussi, 35.

"This kind of case does not come along very often. It is going to take some time to digest this," Foulk said, referring to forensic pathologist Dr. Eric Vey's extensive autopsy report.

He said his entire staff of prosecutors and detectives will meet Monday with police detectives to review Vey's report.

Sources close to the investigation said Foulk's office is weighing whether to add charges of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter against Iarussi.

Vey's autopsy report was not released Friday, but Vey summarized his findings:

More than 200 injuries covered the mentally disabled 14-year-old girl's body — 82 of them "fresh," and 130 up to two and a half to three weeks old, he said.

Older injuries included a healed broken rib, a cauliflower ear from repeated injury, and lips so scarred that the muscles were starting to degenerate, he said.

"(The) active abuse perpetrated on this individual in this age group was the worst case of child abuse I have seen over a chronological period," he said.

Legler's injuries, plus information about events of May 9 uncovered in the criminal investigation, led Vey to believe Legler was subjected to emotional and physical stress so great on the day of her death that it caused her defective heart to give out.

"But for the set of circumstances that existed at the time of her death, death would not have occurred at that time," he said.

Cook's homicide ruling means he believes Legler died at the hands of another person. A coroner's ruling does not automatically translate into homicide charges because such charges take into account a variety of factors that include the defendant's mind-set and the circumstances of the killing.

The sources said the District Attorney's Office is focusing on voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, two categories of homicide charges, rather than more serious homicide charges such as first-, second- or third-degree murder.

Voluntary manslaughter occurs when someone kills another person because of a sudden or intense passion resulting from a serious provocation, or when someone kills in the mistaken belief the killing is justifiable.

Involuntary manslaughter occurs when a person kills another recklessly or negligently.

Iarussi, who is in Erie County Prison, is already charged with aggravated assault, endangering the welfare of a child and recklessly endangering another person.

Aggravated assault, a first-degree felony, carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Voluntary manslaughter also is a first-degree felony with a maximum 20-year sentence. Involuntary manslaughter is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Iarussi already faces a first-degree felony charge under the aggravated-assault count.

When paramedics were called to Iarussi's mobile home at 554 Polito Drive in Millcreek Township at 5:42 p.m. on May 9 for a report of a child fall victim, they found Legler unconscious and in cardiac arrest. An hour later, Legler was pronounced dead at Hamot Medical Center.

Iarussi's housemate at the time, Linda Fisher, has told investigators that moments before Legler collapsed, she and Legler were wrestling each other at Iarussi's command. Iarussi sat on a bed making bell sounds to signal the rounds and beat them both with a hairbrush if they tried to stop, Fisher said.

Fisher, who is free on bond, said Legler's last words were, "I'm tired." The girl then collapsed, stopped breathing and turned blue, she said.

LISA THOMPSON, can be reached at 870-1802 or by e-mail.

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