Judge rules couple’s rights not violated

After a second day of testimony in Rappahannock County Circuit Court – and despite strong arguments from defense attorneys – a judge ruled Friday (Dec. 28) that interviews of Brenda Holly Lyons-Lenchick and Joseph Anthony Lenchick, the Castleton couple facing child abuse and cruelty charges, are admissible when the case goes to trial.

During the interviews, according to testimony in the case, Brenda Lyons-Lenchick confessed to trying to starve her disabled child to death. She is also charged with attempted murder in the case. No trial dates have yet been set.

“I don’t find it [the issue of whether the confession was freely given] as clear as either side would like me to,” said Judge John J. McGrath at this, the couple’s second hearing on the matter. McGrath continued the case from Dec. 17 so the couple’s first interviews with Capt. J.C. Welch of the Rappahannock County Sheriff’s Office could be played in their entirety in court.

Welch had previously testified that he had not read Lyons-Lenchick or Lenchick their Miranda rights before interviewing them initially. Welch said he thought the Feb. 22 Supreme Court ruling in Howe vs. Fields – which found that investigators don’t have to read Miranda rights to inmates during jailhouse interrogations about crimes unrelated to their current incarceration – meant he didn’t have to advise either suspect of their legal rights.

Welch said he went to talk to Commonwealth’s Attorney Art Goff after the first interview. Goff told Welch he’d made a mistake, and Welch later interviewed them a second time, after reading each their Miranda rights.

During the “unwarned” interview with Lyons-Lenchick on May 23, she insists she did nothing wrong and denies trying to starve her son Caleb, who was born with a cleft palate. “I would never let my little boy starve,” Lenchick-Lyons said through tears. “I’d never do nothing to harm those kids.”

After 25 minutes, Welch testified, the investigator’s recording device ran out of memory. He said he waited between 10 and 20 minutes for a good place to stop the interview, then retrieved another recorder. During that time, he took notes by hand.

Welch said that during that gap in recordings, Lenchick-Lyons told him she had decreased Caleb’s formula from three scoops per serving to one, and only fed him two or three times in a 24-hour period. Welch said she told him she became depressed and “gave up” on herself, and believed without Caleb, things could get back to a point where she could handle them. Welch said she said she had planned to bury Caleb in Pennsylvania next to his grandfather.

During his interview, Lenchick was surprised to learn his wife had allegedly tried to starve their son. He told Welch he always thought Caleb was skinny, but didn’t notice anything unusual about it. “She didn’t say a word to me about any of it,” Lenchick said. “It’s like you’re talking about a different woman.”

Goff admitted Welch made a mistake in not Mirandizing the couple, and conceded that the initial “unwarned” interviews of the couple were inadmissible.  However, Goff cited the recent case of Kuhn vs. Commonwealth, which established three categories of behavior for officers who didn’t read suspect Miranda rights: oversight, confusion or tactic.

Goff said Welch was simply confused about whether he had to Mirandize the couple and said that the lack of any sort of threats or coercion on Welch’s part pointed to it being an accident, rather than a tactical decision. The written waivers of rights the couple signed after the second interview, Goff said, count as a legitimate waiver of their rights and show that the second interviews were “intelligently made.”

In those later interviews, Lyons-Lenchick mostly confirms, with answers of “yes” interspersed with bouts of sobbing, in answer to Welch’s questions about what she’d told him in the first interview.

Peter Hansen, Lenchick-Lyons’ defense attorney, argued that Welch had employed an illegal interrogation technique known as the “two-step process” when interviewing the couple. In that technique, the interviewing officer doesn’t advise a suspect of his or her rights until after the interview is complete.

“Inadvertence is not when a calculated choice is made – twice – to withhold Miranda warnings,” Hansen said in his closing arguments. Hansen also said it was “significant” that Welch didn’t inform Sheriff Connie C. Smith about the Miranda rights issue right away. Hansen said Smith only found out about the Miranda issue approximately a week before she was called to testify Dec. 17. Hansen said that was further proof not Mirandizing the couple was “a conscious decision” and a “tactical choice.”

“This courthouse has stood for probably 150 years, your honor,” Hansen said. “And I can only imagine how many times suspects have been told ‘ignorance of the law is no excuse.’ And it’s not.”

Kirk Milam, Lenchick’s council, echoed Hansen’s argument and said it was “incredulous” that a senior officer like Welch would be confused about the custody-status of the couple.

“There can be no doubt as to the custody,” Milam said. “They were in custody on his warrants.”

In his closing statement, Goff said there was “no sign” of Welch using the two-step process and reiterated his feelings that the signed waivers for the second interviews made them admissible.

“There should have been consultation [on the Miranda rights],” Goff said. “Capt. Welch goofed up and admits it. If he had done it on purpose, why would he have come to me, told me about it and then re-interviewed them?”

McGrath thanked both sides for the “quality of [their] argument” before denying the suppression motions and ruling the confessions admissible for the still-unscheduled trial.

“I believe the testimony and circumstances are such that there was no deliberate attempt to evade Miranda [rights],” McGrath said. “It was a serious mistake by Capt. Welch . . . but there was no abrogation of free will and I find the confessions were freely made.”