Mother admits killing newborn; faces 20 years in prison
A 26-year-old Buffalo Township woman likely will serve eight to 20 years in a state prison instead of the 40 years she could have faced if convicted of killing her newborn daughter in 2007.
On the day that jury selection was set to begin, Lauren Elizabeth Jones on Thursday pleaded no contest to third-degree murder, concealing a death and abuse of a corpse.
The prosecution dismissed a homicide charge and a lesser charge of child endangerment.
The prosecution dropped plans to seek a possible death penalty about five months after Jones' arrest. The authorities said Jones used a steak knife to stab the newborn, identified in a court document as "Angel," in the neck in the basement of her mother's Monroe Road house on Feb. 28, 2007.
Police said the newborn was wrapped in plastic and hidden inside a book bag under a bed until days later. Jones' mother, Debra J. Troutman, discovered the infant's body while investigating a foul odor.
At about 10 a.m. Thursday, county Judge Timothy F. McCune received the plea agreement to review and ordered a pre-sentence investigation.
McCune also scheduled sentencing for April 16.
Defense attorney Joseph M. Kecskemethy told Jones in open court that it's unlikely but possible for McCune to reject the plea bargain and send her case to trial.
Jones acknowledged that possibility in the presence of the judge, her attorney, Assistant District Attorney B.T. Fullerton, as well as her mother and two others who witnessed the plea.
Jones will get credit for the two years she has spent in the Butler County jail since her arrest.
That means she could be eligible for parole in as few as six years. However, she was cautioned not to expect it.
"There is no guarantee. No automatic parole after you serve the minimum," Kecskemethy told his client.
"For your mental health, the best thing is not to count on parole the first time you are eligible," the attorney said.
In the hourlong court session, Jones repeatedly was asked if she willingly gave up her presumed innocence. She also was asked about using legal strategies such as trying to quash evidence. She was asked if she understood that accepting a plea bargain probably would restrict her right to appeal.
In a quiet but clear voice, Jones repeatedly told the judge that she understood what was happening.
She replied "yes" or "yes, sir" to questions and didn't speak unless first addressed.
Jones, who wore a black and white striped prison uniform, had her hands cuffed to a thick belt around her waist.
She could barely lift her right hand when Judge McCune asked her to raise it to swear her in.
Jones acknowledged that she was taking the anti-depressant Prozac and other medicine, but she steadfastly said she was able to understand the proceedings and could speak for herself.
Other than speak in court, Kecskemethy and Fullerton declined to comment about the case because of a revised gag order implemented in August by McCune.
Media attorney: Lawyers should be free to speak
The defense attorney and prosecutor who were involved in the Lauren Elizabeth Jones case now should be free to speak about it, according to a media attorney who challenged the judge's gag order.
Because Jones entered into a plea bargain Thursday, Trib Total Media attorney David Strassburger says there's no longer a reason for Butler County Judge Timothy McCune to ban the lawyers involved from commenting on the case.
The unusual case raises several questions, among them why the Butler County District Attorney's Office initially sought the death penalty then ultimately agreed to recommend a sentence of as little as eight years in prison.
In June 2007, McCune enacted a far-reaching gag order he said was necessary to protect the prospective jury pool from pretrial publicity.
After formal objections were raised by several media outlets, including Trib Total Media newspapers, McCune later limited the gag order.
But on Thursday, McCune said the order will remain in effect until after Jones is sentenced next month.
As a result, defense attorney Joseph M. Kecskemethy and Butler County Assistant District Attorney B.T. Fullerton said after yesterday's hearing that they could not comment.
Strassburger was one of the attorneys who won the revised order from the judge.
Now he questions how continuing the gag order on the defense attorney and prosecutor is still useful, because there is no jury pool to contaminate.
The judge is likely to accept the plea bargain presented to him, so a trial — and picking jurors — won't be necessary.
"Certainly any comment by them wouldn't have any impact on the judge," Strassburger said.
Temple University Law School professor Edward Ohlbaum said it's "somewhat unusual to have a gag order at a time following a jury verdict or a plea bargain."
"They're operating from an abundance of caution," said Duquesne University Law School professor Bruce Antowiak.
Antowiak, a former assistant U.S. attorney, said it's possible that McCune will reject the plea bargain after reviewing it and a pre-sentence investigation he ordered on Jones.
If the plea is rejected, the case would be sent back to trial and a jury would have to be empaneled.
"She also has the right to withdraw her plea, and you're back at the point of going to trial," he said.
— By Chuck Biedka