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Lawyer: Mom too "meek" to stop fatal beating of son in church

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. -- A woman charged with beating her teenage son to death inside a central New York church felt helpless to stop an intervention that spiraled into violent punishment by others, her lawyer said Thursday.

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Bruce Leonard (right) and Deborah Leonard New Hartford, N.Y., Police Department

Deborah Leonard stands charged with manslaughter in the death of her 19-year-old son, Lucas, but her lawyer, Devin Garramone, said he believes other people caused the fatal injuries. Six people have been arrested in the beatings of Lucas and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, who were pummeled with fists and kicked at the Word of Life church in New Hartford, N.Y., during what police have described as a spiritual counseling session to urge them to confess their sins and seek forgiveness.

Like police, Garramone said he wasn't certain what supposed conduct led to the encounter Sunday night. But he said Deborah Leonard "had no idea how far it would be taken" and didn't have the emotional strength to oppose others in a church where she'd worshipped for 30 years.

"It looks like she went along with it, and it spun out of control," he said. "This woman is so meek and timid, she didn't have the temerity to stand up to them and say, 'You're not punishing my kid. You're not doing this.'"

She and her husband - the boys' father, Bruce Leonard - have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter. Four other people, including the victims' 33-year-old sister, Sarah Ferguson, have pleaded not guilty to assault. Lawyers for the father and the sister haven't commented.

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Joseph Irwin (left), David Morey (left of center), Linda Morey (right of center) and Sarah Ferguson (right) New Hartford, N.Y., Police Department

Police have said more arrests are expected as the investigation continues into the beatings, which unfolded at an insular church that also has served as home to some of its members.

The teens suffered injuries to the abdomen, genitals, back and thighs during an hourslong attack after services "in hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness," Police Chief Michael Inserra said Wednesday.

After Lucas Leonard was taken to the hospital, police suspected his younger brother had been hurt, too, but his relatives wouldn't tell officers where he was, the chief said. After searching for hours, police found him on the second floor of the church, housed in a red-brick former elementary school.

It has long stirred curiosity and suspicion in a rural part of the former mill town of New Hartford, about 50 miles from Syracuse. Residents have wondered, "Why are they so secretive? Why are there no kids out playing?," said Nancy Kneller, who used to work at a Catholic church next door.

Tara Litz, who used to live near the church, remembers being puzzled by the members' seeming seclusion and chanting in the night. But they would also offer her bread, cakes and invitations to join in church activities, she said.

"They were always very kind to me," she said.

Teen beaten to death inside secretive NY church

In nearby Clayville, a village of 350 people where the Leonards live, neighbors recalled a highly religious family that kept mostly to itself.

The Leonards home-schooled their children, eschewed TV and did not take part in Halloween, either leaving home or turning off all the lights, neighbor Jim Constantine said. Some Christians do not observe Halloween because of its pagan origins and macabre themes.

Lucas and Christopher Leonard read the Bible two hours a day at their parents' insistence and weren't allowed to go to others' homes for sleepovers, neighbor Nicole Howard said.

"They weren't allowed to do normal things, but they tried to be as normal as they could be," she said.

They weren't entirely isolated from everyday life: Lucas Leonard routinely was hired to watch Constantine's dog when he was away, including this past weekend.

"Pleasant kid. No bad talk," Constantine said. "No nothing."

Following the beating allegations, hundreds of residents have joined a Facebook group calling for the church to be shut down.