Separate trial dates have been set for the mother and one of her co-defendants, both of whom are accused of murder in the drug-related death of 17-month-old Patrick Nicholas Lerch.
The child’s mother, Heather M. Lerch, 20, is scheduled to stand trial Aug. 20 before Summit County Common Pleas Judge Tom Parker.
She is facing 13 felony charges, including four counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of complicity to commit murder, in connection with her son’s death.
Ronald S. Legg, the 22-year-old brother of Lerch’s boyfriend, is scheduled to stand trial Sept. 24 in Parker’s court.
He is facing a nine-count indictment for murder, three counts of involuntary manslaughter, two counts of child endangering and various drug offenses for allegedly running a meth lab in the basement of a two-story home on St. Leger Avenue in the Goodyear Heights neighborhood.
Patrick was found there in his crib, unresponsive, on a Sunday night, Feb. 26, Akron police said. He died later that night at Akron Children’s Hospital, apparently never regaining consciousness.
The Summit County Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled the death a homicide from methamphetamine poisoning.
The cases of the other two co-defendants, Lerch’s boyfriend, Randy L. Legg, 19, and Allen R. Kostra, 24, are scheduled for a joint trial before Parker on Oct. 4.
Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Gregory Peacock told the court there is a possibility that their cases could be resolved before trial.
All four defendants, dressed in orange-striped jail clothes and shackled at the wrists and ankles, appeared in Parker’s court with their attorneys Tuesday morning.
Lerch, who was separated from the three men, entered the courtroom with her lips quivering as she fought back tears.
Afterward, her attorney, Brian M. Pierce, said she has denied “any role in causing the death of this child.”
A likely strategy for her defense emerged during the hearing.
Pierce asked the judge, who granted the request and approved a $3,500 fee to be paid by the court, for an independent forensic expert to review Patrick’s autopsy findings.
Pierce said nothing more in open court about his trial strategy.
Outside of court, however, he briefly explained why the expert, Dr. Jonathan L. Arden of McLean, Va., will be brought in.
“In a case with this type of very serious charges, we think it’s important to have an independent expert review the autopsy findings, as well as the cause and manner of death,” Pierce said.
Arden, who served as chief medical examiner in Washington, D.C., from 1998 to 2003, has 30 years of experience in the field and specializes in pediatric forensics.
According to his testimony in a previous Summit County murder case, Arden has performed some 400 pediatric autopsies.
Pierce declined to discuss any additional aspects of Lerch’s defense.
Her facial expression, appearing on the verge of sobbing, did not change for the entire 20-minute hearing as she stood in front of the bench.
Lerch made no comments in open court, except to briefly answer the judge’s questions in a barely audible voice.
Pierce acknowledged that his client has been shaken by the accusations.
“I think emotionally this has been difficult. She’s gone through the loss of a child. She’s facing horrible accusations, being charged with a murder she didn’t commit,” he said.
Reason for separate trials
Multiple statements have been given to investigators by all four defendants, and those statements encompass some 40 hours of video or audio interviews to be reviewed, Pierce said.
“I can’t get into any theories,” he said, “but I know Heather wasn’t involved, she denies any involvement in the death of this child, and she feels absolutely horrible.”
The reason Parker ordered separate trials for Lerch and Ronald Legg is that they allegedly made incriminating statements against each other during their interviews with police detectives.
When such a situation exists in cases with multiple defendants, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a separate trial is a defendant’s constitutional right.
Ed Meyer can be reached at 330 996-3784 or firstname.lastname@example.org.