Relates to:
Date: 1989-02-14

Author: The Associated Press

Dateline: SALEM

A Roanoke County woman was sentenced today to 12 years in prison for force- feeding her adopted daguhter a fatal dose of salt as punishment for stealing sugar.

Beth Michelle Riggs, 36, wept as Roanoke County Circuit Judge Kenneth Trabue imposed the sentence on her second-degree murder conviction in the salt poisoning death in May of 4-year-old Heather Riggs.

Commonwealth's Attorney Skip Burkart had asked for the maximum sentence of 20 years, saying Mrs. Riggs had deprived her daughter of most of her life expectancy.

"Maybe we ought to feed her 56 spoons of salt and see how she likes it," Burkart said, noting that amount of salt 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," Burkart said.

Defense attorney James Swanson asked for a prison sentence of 12 years, to be suspended after six years. He said the case didn't call for the maximum because Mrs. Riggs never intended to kill her daughter.

"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."

Earlier today, Mrs. Riggs testified that she force-fed the child a dose of salt on May 16 as punishment for stealing sugar, but had no idea the salt would prove fatal.

"If I had known it was going to hurt her, I would never have done it," Mrs. Riggs said.

On the stand, Mrs. Riggs described other punishments she imposed on Heather and four natural sons.

"I used the paddle on rare occasions on my children but I did not hit them hard enough to hurt," Mrs. Riggs said.

She also said she had knocked the boys' heads together and forced the girl to eat pepper.

"I banged the boys' heads together years ago -- one time -- years ago, and that was it," she said.

Asked about the incident in which she gave Heather pepper, Mrs. Riggs said, "She had lied continously and I put a taste of pepper on her tongue, and that's it."

Trabue convicted Mrs. Riggs of second-degree murder on Dec. 13, after hearing evidence of the force-feeding of salt and testimony about how Mrs. Riggs failed to disclose information about the salt after the girl was taken to an emergency room. The defense had hoped for a conviction on an involuntary manslaughter charge and attempted to put part of the blame on doctors who were unable to save the child's life.

Heather Riggs died May 17 of heart failure that medical examiners said occurred when a large lump of salt in her stomach dissolved and poisoned her.In December, the judge threw out a murder charge against the child's adoptive father, Jack Francis Riggs, 39, because there was no evidence he participated in the punishment.


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