Date: 1987-07-18

John Witt
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Karen Diehl had no malice in her heart when she struck the blow that killed her adopted son, a jury concluded yesterday.

Mrs. Diehl was convicted of involuntary manslaughter, abduction, child neglect and assault. The jury recommended sentences totaling 31 years in prison, 10 years less than the terms another jury recommended Wednesday for her husband, Michael.

He was convicted of first-degree murder, even though the prosecution contended it was Mrs. Diehl who struck the blows that killed Dominick Diehl, who was called Andrew.

Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Sciortino credited the discrepancy to the fact that the couple was tried by separate juries who heard different evidence and arguments.

"I'm satisfied that justice was done," Sciortino said. "But the natural children and the adopted children will be spread out and the family will be split up. The whole thing saddens me."

A hearing has been set for Aug. 5 to consider the future of the couple's four natural and 12 adopted children, who had been placed with several foster families pending the outcome of their parents' trials.

Defense attorney Tom Shuttleworth said there was a good chance the Diehls could be reunited with their children when they are released from prison.

Mr. and Mrs. Diehl have appealed their convictions.

Mrs. Diehl remains free on $45,000 bond pending a sentencing hearing Sept. 16.

Her husband was ordered to jail yesterday afternoon after prosecutors discovered a little-known statute that forbids bond for anyone convicted of murder in the first degree.

The difference between murder and manslaughter is malice, which was defined in the jury instructions as "intentionally doing a wrongful act . . . not in the heat of passion."

Mrs. Diehl testified that she was angry when she "bonked" the emotionally disturbed 13-year-old in the head with a wooden paddle, but she denied that she meant him any harm.

She did not react visibly to the verdict, although she appeared weak and had to be helped from the courtroom by a brother and sister.

Throughout their two-week trials, the Diehls presented stark contrasts in appearance and conduct.

Mrs. Diehl is a stocky woman with close-cropped graying hair and a face that mirrored mercurial emotions.

Her husband is a gaunt and balding man with an angular face that seldom betrayed his feelings.

While the television cameras were trained on the parents, it was a dead child who was the subject of most of the testimony. It often appeared that it was Andrew who was on trial.

"The heartbreak that kid felt was unimaginable; nobody should have the cards that little boy was dealt," Shuttleworth said.

The wiry, brown-skinned son of a prostitute and an unknown client was beaten and abandoned frequently until he was placed in a series of foster homes, psychiatric hospitals and orphanages.

"Tormented as he must have been by the demons inside him," attorney Robert Morecock said, the boy sought revenge and courted rejection by setting fires and sexually abusing other children.

He lied, stole and manipulated, Mrs. Diehl said, threatening his mother's authority as matriarch of the clan.

Everyone agreed he was a bright child with a keen imagination. He enjoyed reading Westerns, made up stories to amuse the other children and always beat his mother at chess.

"It was always a contest between Andrew and us to see if he could outwit us," Michael Diehl said.

In unsuccessful attempts to stop Andrew from stealing food, they booby- trapped the kitchen of their house in Post Falls, Idaho, with piles of chairs and hung a picture of Jesus in front of the cupboard to make him feel guilty about breaking in.

The Diehls tried punishments that had worked with the other children. They washed Andrew's mouth with soap, made him write sentences and do jumping jacks -- but his behavior continued to deteriorate.

The family boarded a converted school bus in 1984 for a two-year cross- country odyssey. Living in close quarters on the bus made Andrew's transgressions harder to ignore.

It was while the bus was parked in a Virginia Beach campground last fall that Mrs. Diehl said they decided to shackle Andrew naked to the floor "for the sake of the other children."

Andrew tugged and wriggled until his swollen ankles were free from the ropes. He tugged on his handcuffs until they snapped, and he chipped his teeth unscrewing the pipe clamp that replaced the broken cuff.

The Diehls testified that their children equated paddling with love and security. While the other children never got more than 10 whacks a day, Andrew often earned more than 100.

"He's got a very tough hide," that broke several switches, Diehl said. "He had the constitution of an ox, he'd eat anything."

That included feces and urine, which Mrs. Diehl fed him on more than half a dozen occasions to punish him for resisting her efforts at potty training.

Both parents denied that their treatment of Andrew constituted abuse, although they took pains to hide their actions from neighbors who might think otherwise.

During the five years they had custody of Andrew, the Diehls never called a doctor, a psychiatrist or a counselor. They didn't want him to feel that they were giving up on him, Mrs. Diehl said.

On Oct. 24, Andrew collapsed on the bus. First his parents thought he was pretending, then they prayed over him for an hour.

When the rescue squad was finally called, they found the boy severely malnourished and covered with scars. He remained in a coma for four days before he was pronounced dead of massive brain injuries.

Mrs. Diehl testified that she had "bonked" Andrew on the head in anger a few days before his collapse.

Diehl said he cuffed the boy in the head with his hand, but never with the stick.

Both maintained that Andrew struck his head in a fall, although neither saw him hit anything.

They continued throughout the trial to refer to his death as "Andrew's accident."


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