MOTHER GETS 12-YEAR TERM IN SALT POISONING OF CHILD

Relates to:
Date: 1989-02-15

Author: Associated Press

Dateline: SALEM

A woman who force-fed her 4-year-old adopted daughter a fatal dose of salt as punishment for eating sugar was sentenced yesterday to 12 years in prison, eight years fewer than the maximum penalty sought by the prosecutor.

Beth Michelle Riggs, 36, testified in Roanoke County Circuit Court that she was just trying to teach Heather Riggs not to steal food from the kitchen when she force-fed her the salt May 16. Earlier in the day, the child had been caught eating sugar from a bowl.

"I was disgusted," said Mrs. Riggs, who was convicted of second-degree murder. "I said to her, `How about I mix a little salt with this sugar and see how you like it? Because everything you get doesn't taste good.' She said nothing, so I mixed the salt with the sugar. I said, `Here, try this. See how you like this.' "

The child began vomiting, and Mrs. Riggs tried to make her clean up the mess, but the girl's eyes rolled back in her head as she lost consciousness, testimony indicated. Heather died the next day of heart failure caused by salt poisoning, doctors said.

Commonwealth's Attorney Skip Burkart said the maximum sentence of 20 years would be appropriate for Mrs. Riggs, of Roanoke County.

"Maybe we ought to force-feed her 56 spoons of salt and see how she likes it," Burkart told Judge Kenneth Trabue, noting that would be an equivalent dose for an adult. "But we can't do that. Everybody on Earth would come forward and say that's cruel and unusual."

Defense attorney James Swanson asked for a prison sentence of 12 years, with six years suspended. Mrs. Riggs never intended to harm her daughter, who was born in Colombia, Swanson said.

"Mr. Burkart preaches an eye for an eye, but then says society wouldn't put up with it," Swanson said. "I think the whole sense of an eye for an eye, given these facts, is not justice."

The judge agreed the case did not call for the maximum sentence, but he ordered Mrs. Riggs to serve all 12 years. Swanson said Mrs. Riggs might be eligible for parole after serving a quarter of the prison time.

Mrs. Riggs said she never intended to harm her daughter, who had a history of voraciously eating anything she could get her hands on. The daughter might have even eaten much of the fatal dose of salt on her own before the punishment began, Mrs. Riggs said.

"I do not know what the child consumed before I got home," Mrs. Riggs testified.

Burkart attacked that testimony and accused Mrs. Riggs of faking her remorse by crying while under questioning from her attorney but answering coolly and precisely under cross-examination.

"Her story is absolutely and inherently incredible," Burkart said. "As far as she's concerned, the child killed herself."

Mrs. Riggs said she gave the girl three spoons of salt, but Burkart said that even her defense had used an expert witness that put the figure at double that amount or more. One of Mrs. Riggs' four sons had initially told police the girl was given 10 or 11 spoonfuls, authorities said, but the child testified yesterday that he did not remember saying that.

Mrs. Riggs entered a plea of no contest in December as part of an arrangement that called for Trabue to convict her of either second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. The judge chose the more serious offense. Trabue said that he was troubled by testimony that Mrs. Riggs had also put pepper on her daughter's mouth after the girl was caught lying and had at times dragged her around by the hair as punishment. The woman also beat her daughter and four sons with a paddle and acknowledged once knocking the sons' heads together.

Her husband, Jack Francis Riggs, 39, had also been charged with murder but the judge threw out the charge because there was no evidence Riggs was involved in the fatal punishment.

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