VA. BEACH JURY RESUMES STUDY OF CHARGES AGAINST MRS. DIEHL

Date: 1987-07-17

Rex Springston
Richmond Times-Dispatch

Karen Diehl is guilty of at least three crimes, according to an unusual source -- her lawyer.

A jury here continued deliberations today to see whether they would agree and perhaps add a fourth crime -- first-degree murder.

Since his surprising opening statement nine days ago, when he admitted wrongdoing by Mrs. Diehl, lawyer Thomas B. Shuttleworth has clearly pursued one goal -- avoid a murder conviction.

"Yes, she committed some crimes, no question about that," Shuttleworth said in his closing argument yesterday. "She did some things that were terrible and some things that were disgusting. But she didn't murder her son."

Mrs. Diehl, 36, is charged with first-degree murder, abduction, malicious wounding and neglect in the Oct. 29 death of adopted son Dominick "Andrew" Diehl, 13.

Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Kenneth A. Phillips told the jury there are "two Karen Diehls" -- the loving mother and wife known to her friends, and the monster who killed her son.

"She beat him till his buttocks bled. She kept him chained. . . . These quite frankly are not acts of love, care and compassion. They are acts of malice," Phillips said.

A pleasant-looking woman with slightly graying hair, Mrs. Diehl held a handkerchief to her quivering lips and rocked gently back and forth in her chair as Phillips recited the litany of allegations.

Mrs. Diehl is accused of beating Andrew with a 2-foot stick; shackling him to the floor of the family's school bus home; forcing him to eat his bodily waste; and, ultimately, inflicting a fatal blow on the youth's head with the stick.

Mrs. Diehl admits to all but inflicting the fatal blow. A fundamentalist Christian, she says she disciplined the emotionally disturbed youth out of love in an effort to break him of urinating and defecating on others' belongings.

Mrs. Diehl faces up to life plus 40 years in prison.

In a separate trial, husband Michael Diehl, 42, was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder, abduction, neglect and misdemeanor assault. The jury recommended he serve 41 years in prison and pay a $1,000 fine.

Diehl was allowed to remain free on $45,000 bond pending formal sentencing Sept. 1.

But, Commonwealth's Attorney Paul A. Sciortino said today, the prosecutors have learned that state law prohibits the bonding of a person convicted of first-degree murder. Diehl's attorney is out of town, however, so a hearing to seek revocation of Diehl's bond can occur no earlier than Monday, Sciortino said.

Diehl watched some of the proceedings involving his wife yesterday and appeared relaxed as he chatted with friends and family.

Asked by a reporter how he felt, Diehl offered a slight smile and said, "How would you feel? Put yourself in my place -- especially if you have children that love you."

The Diehls have 12 adopted and four natural children, now in foster homes.

In Mrs. Diehl's case, the key question for the jury is whether she hit Andrew on the top of his head with the stick. The child died of a head injury caused by a blow in that area.

In a statement to police, Mrs. Diehl said she once struck Andrew on his head out of frustration.

Mrs. Diehl later said the statement was misinterpreted -- that she didn't hit Andrew hard enough to hurt. She said Andrew hit his head when he fell in the bus.

"The commonwealth has taken that one statement and fashioned what they say is a murder case around it, and it ain't so," Shuttleworth said.

Prosecutors say Andrew couldn't have hit himself on the top of the head in a fall. In a dramatic attempt to show them wrong, Shuttleworth rammed his head against the judge's bench yesterday.

The murder charge lodged against Mrs. Diehl is not the first-degree murder charge with which the public is familiar. In the typical case, prosecutors must show premeditation by the killer.

Mrs. Diehl, however, is charged with what is called "felony murder." In such a case, the defendant can be found guilty of first-degree murder if the prosecution proves a killing occurred -- even if it was accidental -- and that the killing occurred during any of a number of felonies -- in this case, abduction.

Shuttleworth told the jurors he wouldn't argue if they found Mrs. Diehl abducted, neglected and wounded Andrew, although he said the latter wasn't malicious.

The jury deliberated 2 1/2 hours yesterday and resumed today at 9 a.m.

The Diehls, of Post Falls, Idaho, were taking their children on a cross- country trip when Andrew fell unconscious in the bus Oct. 24. He did not regain consciousness.

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