Relates to:
Date: 1988-12-14

Author: The Associated Press

Dateline: SALEM

A woman faces 20 years in prison on a second-degree murder conviction for force-feeding her 4-year-old daughter a fatal dose of salt as punishment for stealing sugar.

Her husband, who also was accused of murder for his failure to stop the fatal punishment, was set free last night as a judge dismissed charges against him.

"Jack Riggs is going to have to live with his conscience," Commonwealth's Attorney Skip Burkart said after Beth Michelle Riggs was convicted in the May 17 death of Heather Riggs.

Mrs. Riggs entered a plea agreement that called for her to be convicted of either second-degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. After hearing the details of Heather Riggs' death from heart failure brought on by the force- feeding, Roanoke County Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Trabue convicted Mrs. Riggs, 36, of the more serious offense.

Burkart said he probably will seek the maximum 20-year prison term when Mrs. Riggs is sentenced in February. Mrs. Riggs was immediately taken into custody at the end of yesterday's hearing when the judge revoked her bond.

Mrs. Riggs had wept at times during testimony that described how a three- inch lump of salt in her adoptive daughter's stomach was observed through X-rays to be shrinking as the salt dissolved into her comatose body and her heart failed. Mrs. Riggs briefly embraced her husband before deputies led her to jail.

The husband left the courtroom without comment.

Defense Attorney James Swanson asked the judge to find Mrs. Riggs guilty of involuntary manslaughter, with a maximum 10-year sentence, because she did not want to kill her child.

"There's no indication she intended to hurt that child," Swanson said. "We're dealing with table salt. We're dealing with a substance available on every table in the country. She had no idea of the lethal effect."

Testimony indicated Mrs. Riggs force-fed her daughter the salt after the girl was caught eating sugar she had stolen. The woman hoped to give the daughter a bad taste to stop further sugar stealing, but ended up giving the 26-pound child more than enough salt to kill a 170-pound adult, testimony indicated.

But Swanson suggested that the child might have lived if doctors had treated the case differently, even though doctors testified that they handled the case the way they did partly because Mrs. Riggs lied to them about the salt. Doctors said they might have pumped the girl's stomach if the mother had told them about the force-feeding, but they were not sure if that would have saved the girl's life.

"I just can't understand the defense blaming it on the hospital," the judge said.

As part of the plea agreement, a child neglect charge against Mrs. Riggs was dropped.

Riggs had been charged with murder and child neglect, but his lawyer, Thomas Blaylock, successfully argued that Riggs had nothing to do with the crime. Riggs immediately took his daughter to the hospital after phoning a poison hotline, but the prosecutor said Riggs should be held accountable because he failed to stop the killing.

Burkart said Heather Riggs, who had been adopted from the nation of Colombia, was routinely confined to her room, with a lock put on the outside of the door by her parents, so she would not get out and consume large quantities of sweets.

The girl cried as the mother force-fed her the salt, but the mother threatened to spank her if she did not eat it. Once the salt was eaten, the mother told the girl to go stand in the corner, where she began vomiting.

The mother tried to make the girl clean up her own mess, but she kept vomiting and soon her eyes rolled up in her head before she went into a coma, testimony indicated.

After the Riggs couple were charged, their four sons were placed in the custody of their grandparents. Riggs probably will be able to regain custody, Burkart said.


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