MOTHER WHO FED SALT TO CHILD IS CONVICTED

Relates to:
Date: 1988-12-14

Author: From wire dispatches

Dateline: SALEM

A Roanoke County woman was convicted yesterday of second-degree murder for force-feeding her 4-year-old daughter a fatal dose of salt as punishment for stealing sugar.

Roanoke County Circuit Judge Kenneth Trabue convicted Beth Michelle Riggs in the May 17 death of Heather Riggs. The judge also threw out a murder charge against the child's father, Jack Francis Riggs.

Commonwealth's Attorney Skip Burkart said he probably would seek the maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Trabue set sentencing for some time in February.

Mrs. Riggs was scheduled to face trial yesterday but pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and guilty to involuntary manslaughter with the understanding that she would be convicted of only one charge.

Heather, who was adopted from Colombia, died after her mother forced her to eat up to 20 spoonfuls of salt -- between 20 and 45 grams. The force- feeding came as punishment because Heather had eaten sugar from a sugar bowl earlier in the day.

Medical experts testified that 30 grams would be lethal to an adult and five grams could kill a child.

After the force-feeding, the girl began vomiting and Mrs. Riggs told her to clean up the mess, Burkart said.

Heather then became wobbly and her eyes rolled back in her head before the father contacted the poison center and took the child to the hospital, the prosecutor said.

At the hospital, Mrs. Riggs told the doctors that the child had eaten a small quantity of salt and sugar, Burkart said. Doctors testified that they did not treat the case as a poisoning because they did not believe the girl would eat enough salt to bring her sodium level to twice what is normal.

Defense attorney James Swanson argued for the involuntary manslaughter conviction, which would have carried up to 10 years in prison, by saying Mrs. Riggs never intended to harm her daughter.

"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 this country. She had no idea of the lethal effect."

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