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Case against parents in fatal New York church beating moves forward

Police say two teenage brothers were punched and kicked by their parents and other "Word of Life" church congregants who were forcing them to confess their sins
Police say two teenage brothers were punched ... 02:06

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. -- A judge has found prosecutors have enough evidence to move forward with their case against the parents of two teens who were beaten at an upstate New York church.

New Hartford Town Court Justice William Virkler says Bruce and Deborah Leonard will be held on bail while evidence is presented to a grand jury.

The two have been charged with manslaughter in the death of their 19-year-old son, Lucas. Their 17-year-old son, Christopher, was also injured.

They have pleaded not guilty.

Both defense attorneys unsuccessfully asked for the charges to be dismissed, saying prosecutors hadn't submitted sufficient proof to justify a manslaughter charge. Prosecutors say the brothers were beaten for hours at the Word of Life Christian Church during a counseling session that was also attended by four others accused of participating.

Church member Daniel Irwin spoke Friday at a preliminary hearing.

Irwin said he watched through a window and saw Lucas bleeding and rolling on the floor. He described panicked members of the Word of Life Christian Church saying Lucas was dead.

Then, he helped load the teen's body into a van to send him to the hospital. He said other counseling sessions had taken place, but no one had been hit before.

Police said Deborah Leonard told an investigator she hit Lucas with a cord because of "things that he had said."

State police Investigator Todd Grant testified Friday he didn't ask the mother, Deborah Leonard, what those things were but that she demonstrated the blows by hitting a table "very hard" and said she had help from her daughter

New Hartford Town Police Chief Michael Inserra has said the beating earlier this week erupted from a spiritual counseling session over 19-year-old Lucas Leonard's desire to leave the Word of Life Christian Church.

Nineteen-year-old Lucas Leonard died and his brother, Christopher, was seriously injured after both were beaten for hours at the Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford.

District Attorney Scott McNamara said the beatings may have lasted more than ten hours.

"What we understand was that there was an issue about whether the older brother wanted to stay in the church," McNamara told CBS News. "There was a confrontation with the two parents and it turned physical."

McNamara said he could only speak to the facts.

"People are saying a lot of things. All I can say is what we know. This was not a church that was on our radar, and there was something bizarre going on."

Prosecutors said they weren't prepared to go through with the hearing for David and Linda Morey because 17-year-old Christopher Leonard remains hospitalized and unable to testify. New Hartford Police Lt. Timothy O'Neill said Friday they were released prior to the hearing. Their bail was set this week at $50,000 each.

Assistant District Attorney Dawn Lupi said there is a "strong possibility" they will face more serious charges. They are due back in court Dec. 15.

Joseph Irwin and Sarah Ferguson, the victims' sister, appeared in court in orange jumpsuits and shackled with chains around their waists. Their case was postponed until Oct. 23.

Neighbors claim the church's membership consists of four or five families and is run by Tiffanie Irwin, the daughter of the church's late founder. Investigators believe the church members home school their children inside this former public school compound bought in 1984.

In addition to Bruce and Deborah Leonard being charged with manslaughter, the Moreys, the teens' sister, Sarah Ferguson, and Joseph Irwin have been charged with assault.

All have pleaded not guilty.

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