The case against Linda Weston, who was charged last year with imprisoning four mentally disabled adults in a squalid North Philadelphia basement in a plot to steal their government benefits, has from the beginning contained accusations of unimaginable cruelty.
But authorities say the Weston story also represents a potential test case for a new federal hate-crime statute that allows for prosecution of those who victimize the disabled. It would be the first such prosecution since the law was passed in 2009.
Although Weston, 52, and her three alleged coconspirators are scheduled for trial on Jan. 28 in Common Pleas Court on kidnapping, assault, and other charges, sources close to the investigation said they believed the U.S. Department of Justice would adopt the case before then.
Also charged are Weston’s 48-year-old boyfriend, Gregory Thomas; her 33-year-old daughter, Jean McIntosh; and 51-year-old Eddie Wright, a street preacher from Texas.
They were arrested in October 2011 after police discovered four adults living in the dank basement of McIntosh’s Tacony apartment building. Police said Weston’s 20-year-old niece, Beatrice, was being held in an upstairs closet.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office would not comment on whether the case might go federal. Patricia Hartman, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said she could not confirm or deny a federal investigation into the Weston case.
George Yacoubian, Weston’s attorney, said he believed federal charges had always been a prospect. Lou D’Onofrio, the attorney representing Wright, agreed.
“It’s clearly a possibility,” he said.
Several allegations against Weston would seem ripe for federal charges: She and her codefendants are accused of moving the adults around the country, imprisoning them and physically abusing them in at least four states, and persuading them to sign over their Social Security checks.
But law enforcement sources have said from the start the crimes may also fall under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was passed in 2009 and which expanded the earlier federal hate-crimes law to include victims’ sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Shepard was killed in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998 by two men who targeted him for his homosexuality, tied him to a fence, and beat him to death. That same year, Byrd, who was black, was tied to the back of a truck, dragged, and eventually decapitated by two white supremacists. Shepard’s killers are serving life sentences; two of Byrd’s were sentenced to death, and the third was sentenced to life in prison.
Lawyers seeking to prosecute under Shepard-Byrd must prove the offender acted with bias against his or her victim. In the case of the disabled, the offender must have chosen to victimize them because of their disabilities. Those convicted under the act face up to 10 years in prison, and life in prison if the victim was killed.
Just a handful of hate-crime cases have been prosecuted under Shepard-Byrd, all limited to victims’ race or religion.
Last year, the chief of the criminal section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division confirmed his office had opened an investigation into the Weston case.
Some disability rights advocates said the case might be challenging to prosecutors.
Several witnesses in the case have mental difficulties that could make pinpointing details like dates and times difficult. Weston and her codefendants are charged with kidnapping, but in a preliminary hearing last year, victim Edwin Sanabria testified that he agreed to move in with Weston after she said she would take care of him.
Despite his disability, Sanabria, like the other alleged victims, is considered an independent adult. And Sanabria testified that, over the course of 10 years, he never tried to escape from Weston.
“There can be issues as far as, how effective is this witness going to be?” said Silvia Yee, a senior staff attorney with the Disability Rights and Education Fund in Washington. “There are many reasons that someone wouldn’t fight back, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be forced or abused.”
The hate-crime law looks closely at the actions and motives of the accused, Yee said, and less at demeanor or other factors related to the victim.
“It seems wrong to have the focus be on what the victim can or cannot do,” she said. “You want a jury to be able to really consider the actions of the perpetrator and have that be the main point.”
If Weston and her codefendants were federally indicted under the act, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office might choose to withdraw charges, or the case could proceed in both jurisdictions.
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