MRS. DIEHL TELLS JURY OF HORRORS OF BEING PARENT TO DISTURBED SON

Date: 1987-07-15

Rex Springston
Richmond Times-Dispatch

An emotional Karen Diehl testified today about the horrors of raising an emotionally disturbed adopted son while a jury in a courtroom down the hall pondered the fate of her husband, Michael.

The Diehls face charges of murder and other crimes in separate trials in Virginia Beach Circuit Court. They are accused in the death of 13-year-old Dominick "Andrew" Diehl.

Mrs. Diehl, fighting back tears from the start, told how the couple adopted Andrew, the son of a Chicago prostitute, in 1981. She said the boy caused problems such as lying and stealing almost immediately.

"In the beginning there was no punishment," Mrs. Diehl, 36, testified. "In the beginning there were long discussions about why that type of behavior was unacceptable."

Standard disciplines, such as depriving the child of dessert, failed. "When that didn't stop him, then we spanked him."

The Diehls are accused of beating Andrew with a wooden stick until his buttocks bled, shackling him and forcing him to eat his bodily wastes. He died Oct. 29.

Down the hall, the jury reconvened to decide whether the truth would set Diehl free -- or send him to prison for life.

The case against Diehl -- a 42-year-old fundamentalist Christian -- went to the jury yesterday about 4:10 p.m. in Virginia Beach Circuit Court.

The eight-woman, four-man panel deliberated about two hours before going home for the night.

In closing arguments yesterday, the prosecution depicted Diehl as a headstrong parent so intent on winning a battle of wills against the disruptive Andrew that he applied discipline so harsh it was criminal. That discipline, by Diehl's admission, included hitting Andrew up to 200 times with a wooden stick, shackling him and forcing him to eat his own waste.

"The last two months of Andrew Diehl's life bore more resemblance to a concentration camp or a prisoner of war camp than it did a family unit," said Robert J. Humphreys, chief deputy commonwealth's attorney.

"The question is, are there limits beyond which even parents should not go?"

Defense attorney Paul E. Sutton II returned to the theme of his opening statement a week ago -- that the truth would set Diehl free.

"We all spank our children," said Sutton. "We all accidentally or otherwise have gone a little too far. Maybe Michael Diehl went a little beyond that. . . . But my God in heaven, look at what he was dealing with. . . . There was no hope for (Andrew), but (Diehl) tried and tried and tried and tried."

Andrew, the emotionally disturbed son of a Chicago prostitute, tested the Diehls' Christian patience by lying and stealing and by urinating and defecating on others' belongings.

The Diehls subjected Andrew to harsher and harsher discipline, but Andrew's behavior got increasingly worse, evidence showed.

The youth fell unconscious on the floor of the Diehls' school-bus home Oct. 24 and died five days later.

In separate courtrooms, the Diehls face identical charges of murder, abduction, malicious wounding and child neglect.

They could face up to life plus 40 years in prison.

Diehl, a lean former carpenter who has worn open-collar sports shirts and flannel shirts in court, said he punished Andrew out of love and a desire to break him of his bad habits.

But Humphreys noted yesterday that Diehl had told an 11-year-old son not to mention Andrew's discipline to police. Diehl acknowledged wanting to keep the matter secret.

"It would look like child abuse?" Humphreys asked.

"It would look like it, yes," said Diehl.

The closing arguments drew dozens of spectators who packed the small courtroom.

Prosecutors maintain Andrew died of blows to the head.

But in Mrs. Diehl's trial yesterday, Dr. Cyril A. Wecht, a former Pittsburgh coroner, testified that the head wounds suffered by the youth more likely came from a fall.

He noted that Andrew did not have cuts or bruises on his skull where prosecutors say he was hit with the stick.

The Diehls have contended Andrew hit his head when he fell.

Today was the eighth day of the trials, which have drawn national attention.

The Diehls, of Post Falls, Idaho, were traveling cross-country in the converted bus with their 13 adopted and four natural children when they arrived in Virginia Beach in March 1986. They lived at a campground near Sandbridge.

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