MRS. DIEHL'S MANSLAUGHTER CONVICTION VOIDED

Date: 1989-09-13

Joseph Williams
Richmond Times-Dispatch

The Virginia Court of Appeals has overturned the manslaughter conviction of Karen Diehl of Virginia Beach, who, in a widely publicized case, was charged with beating to death one of her 13 adopted children.

In ordering a new trial, the court noted that a prospective juror remained on the jury that convicted Mrs. Diehl, even though he had formed a bias against her.

During her trial, Mrs. Diehl admitted that for more than a month she had kept the child -- a 13-year-old boy -- naked, bound and handcuffed to the floor of a converted school bus that the family had been using as a temporary home.

The three-judge panel's unanimous opinion, released yesterday, was written by Judge Barbara N. Keenan.

The court ruled that Virginia Beach Circuit Court erred by allowing the juror to stay, although he admitted that news reports of the case had caused him to believe that Mrs. Diehl was guilty.

The decision stems from the case against Karen and Michael Diehl, accused of the October 1986 beating death of Dominick Diehl. He was one of the couple's 13 adopted children, all but two of whom had varying degrees of physical and mental handicaps.

The boy, known as Andrew, was found unconscious and naked in the couple's home.

Rescue workers took the youth to a hospital, where he remained in a coma until he died five days later. An autopsy showed that he had died from blows to the head, but he also had suffered severe abuse and weighed less than 70 pounds.

During the trial, Mrs. Diehl admitted that Andrew, who was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, was repeatedly spanked, beaten as many as 30 times on the head and forced to eat his own feces and urine as punishment for misbehaving.

A jury subsequently convicted her of the offenses related to the child's death and recommended prison and jail terms totaling 31 years.

Michael Diehl, who was tried simultaneously before a different jury, was sentenced to 41 years in prison for his role. His appeal is pending.

During jury selection, the prospective juror "stated that he thought Mrs. Diehl was `kind of guilty' and admitted he would have to be presented with evidence for this opinion to change," according to the opinion.

The juror also admitted that he didn't know whether he would convict or acquit Mrs. Diehl if there was doubt about her guilt, according to the opinion.

But the juror then said he could disregard the publicity and decide the case strictly on the evidence presented, the opinion states. When questioned by defense lawyers, he said Mrs. Diehl would not have to prove her innocence. Near the end of questioning, however, the juror changed his answers again, according to the opinion. He said that he believed that what he read in the newspapers " `kind of throws in the guilty side a little bit there.' "

The juror "clearly had an opinion concerning this case," the court said.

"We believe that (the juror) was questioned in a suggestive manner which influenced his responses . . . we hold the trial court abused its discretion and committed manifest error" for not removing him, the court said.

Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Sciortino said yesterday that he would ask the attorney general's office to appeal the panel's ruling.

"We hope that the attorney general will petition the court of appeals to hear this" before the full court, Sciortino said. If the decision is not reversed, he said, a retrial would be complicated and expensive, and could probably not be scheduled before the first of the year.

"We have a lot of witnesses who have left the state, including the Diehl children," Sciortino said. ' ' Because of privacy considerations, we would have to get a court order just to locate them in their new foster homes."

If the children, their foster parents, or state officials in their new homes objected to their returning for another trial, Sciortino said the prosecution could face considerable difficulties and delays in mounting a case against Mrs. Diehl.

Mrs. Diehl is being held in the Virginia Correctional Center for Women in Goochland County.

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