Leatrice Brewer stood before a Nassau County judge Feb. 9 and, when asked, admitted to killing her three children. At this time, Brewer pleaded not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect and, as a result, will not be subject to a trial or jail time. Instead, Brewer will be sent to a maximum security psychiatric center.
The plea, which was agreed upon early last week by Brewer, the Nassau County District Attorney and Nassau County Judge Meryl Berkowitz, was the result of two independent psychiatric evaluations that showed, at the time Brewer killed her three children, she did not know what she was doing was wrong.
When police arrived at Brewer's home on Feb. 24, 2008, she told officers that, at around 4 a.m. that morning, she woke up her 6-year-old daughter Jewell Ward, telling her it was "time to go" before getting a knife and slitting her throat. She then placed the girl back on the bed and drew a bath. She then drowned 18-month-old son Innocent Demesyeux, Jr. in the bathtub and put him back in bed beside Jewell. When she noticed her daughter was still alive, she drowned her in the tub. She then took her middle child, 5-year-old Michael Innocent Demesyeux, and drowned him as well.
Brewer told police she then ingested a combination of bleach, Windex, OxiClean along with a bottle of aspirin and climbed into bed with her children, hoping she would die as well. When she woke the next morning and realized her suicide was unsuccessful, Brewer tried again to kill herself, this time by jumping out her second-story apartment window. Only when this second attempt was unsuccessful did Brewer call 911 and confess to the killings.
According to the psychiatric evaluations performed by board certified psychiatrists hired by both the defendant and the prosecution, Brewer, at the time of the murders, suffered from "major depressive disorder," with "psychotic features," "hallucinations" and "paranoia." The reports go on to say that Brewer understood that she was killing her children, but believed at the time that she was doing so to save them and herself from what she believed were the continuing and potentially mortal effects of voodoo, having stated to police that she killed the children to "protect them from evil spirits."
In consenting to the plea, Assistant District Attorney Michael Canty submitted to the court a detailed statement saying that, based on two independent psychiatric evaluations performed on Brewer, the DA's office believes the defense would prevail at trial using the "not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect" defense. Under Penal Law §40.10, such a defense only requires that the defendant be able to prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" that, at the time of the murders, Brewer "lacked substantial capacity to know or appreciate either the nature and consequences of such conduct or that such conduct was wrong."
By entering a "not responsible" plea, Brewer has waived her right to a criminal trial and accepted the allegations that she committed each element outlined in the murder indictment lodged against her. As a result, Brewer will be incarcerated indefinitely at Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, where she will receive treatment and periodic evaluation.
According to the DA's office, there is neither a mandatory minimum nor mandatory maximum in regard to how long Brewer will remain incarcerated but spokesperson Eric Phillips said she will be evaluated first after six months, then a year later, then every two years after that. "In each evaluation, she is deemed one of three things: mentally ill and dangerous, mentally ill and not dangerous, or no longer mentally ill. Only if the determination falls under that last category, would the mental health officials for the state consider her release," said Phillips. "Given the nature of her crimes and the scope of her psychiatric diagnosis, it's not realistic to think she will be released anytime in the near future. It is more realistic to estimate that she will spend a long, long time, perhaps even the remainder of her life, in a secure psychiatric facility."
Phillips added that the "overall length of incarceration will depend entirely on her mental health progress and the doctors' determinations following each two-year evaluation."
Additionally, as a result of the plea, Brewer will never serve a day in prison. "Based on our investigation and the independent psychiatric evaluations, the judge found her 'not responsible by reason of mental disease or defect' at the time of the killings. Her criminal culpability pertains solely to the time frame of the killings, so even if somebody down the road deems her no longer mentally ill, at the time of the killings she was mentally ill and therefore she cannot be the subject of a traditional criminal prosecution," said Phillips.
"I am shocked that the district attorney would allow Brewer to plead insanity and be found not guilty without a trial. The question of whether she is guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity should be decided by regular people on a jury and not by lawyers and politicians," said Innocent Demesyeux, the father of the two slain boys, in a statement through his attorney. "[Without a] trial, people will never know what really happened to my children and how the county government failed them. My children deserve their day in court."
Of the plea deal, Demesyeux' attorney Sanford Pirotin said it is a "tremendous disappointment not only to the father but to every person who lives in this county." Pirotin said. "Never has a triple killer - in this county, state or country - been allowed to plead not guilty. In any other case, the DA would have wanted this to go to trial and would have prosecuted, which is her job. DA Rice refused to do that. Why?"
The attorney said neither he nor his client was ever contacted about the plea and that his attempts for an adjournment, along with a request for the DA to step aside and have New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo appoint a special prosecutor to handle this and related matters, fell on deaf ears.
Pirotin believes that the DA's decision to accept the plea was an eleventh hour attempt to avoid having the results from a New York State Office of Children and Family Services Child Fatality Report. The report was released Feb. 4 with the plea deal first presented Feb. 6 and finalized Feb. 9. "This deal was cut and finished in less then two business days," he said. "We believe that the DA refused to continue with the case and dropped the charges for the simple reason that [the county] wanted to cover up how they goofed up and did not want the information [contained in the report] brought up in trial."
In a prepared statement, Pirotin said, "In a situation where the county executive has already stated that the system failed these children, transparency on the county's part is key to avoid the appearance of impropriety."
Phillips, however, states the two have nothing to do with one another. "The report and Child Protection Services' history with this family have nothing to do with the criminal case against the defendant," he told The Westbury Times. "Our investigation and prosecution are focused solely on the defendant's actions and how those actions are addressed by state criminal and mental health law."
As it currently stands, Brewer will be sent to the mental facility in upstate New York. While there is nothing he can do to undo the plea, Pirotin is still working with his client in a civil suit, for an undisclosed amount, against Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, Nassau County Commissioner of Social Services John E. Imhof, Ph.D., Nassau County Department of Child Protective Services (CPS) Director Maureen McLoughlin and Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence W. Mulvey as well as other departments and offices.
In his claim, Demesyeux alleges that the Nassau County agencies were "negligent, reckless and grossly negligent and in direct violation of their own internal procedures as well as federal, state and county rules, regulations and statutes in investigating child abuse and neglect allegations."
Additionally, Ricky Ward, the father of murdered 6-year-old Jewell, has a wrongful death suit against Nassau County, Child Protective Services and the Department of Social Services. Ward, who is being represented by the Long Island-based firm Parker Waichman Alonso LLP, charges that the county "negligently, carelessly and recklessly failed to protect Jewel Ward and are, therefore, responsible for the pain and suffering and wrongful death of his daughter." The lawsuit alleges that if the agencies followed policy, Jewell, Michael and Innocent would have been removed from Brewer's home, preventing their deaths.
An article highlighting the findings and suggestions in the state Child Fatality Report will appear in next week's Westbury Times.