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Lewiston Morning Tribune Thursday, August 7, 1997

Jurors begin pondering Leas case; Panel recesses after two hours of deliberations

David Johnson

MOSCOW -- Jurors in the Fred Leas child custody interference trial heard closing arguments and deliberated for two hours Wednesday without reaching a verdict.

The panel is scheduled to return to the jury room at 8:45 this morning to decide the fate of a man who claims the judicial system has already robbed him of his children.

Leas, 49, took the witness stand in his own defense Wednesday morning and denied he intentionally violated the law when he took his two young daughters to South Dakota last summer.

But Latah County Deputy Prosecutor Robin Eckmann told jurors during closing arguments that they should believe the evidence, not the denials of a man who went so far as to dye his two young daughters' hair, change their names and go by an alias himself to hide from authorities.

"The only evidence that he didn't commit this crime is his denial," said Eckmann.

"The intent of the defendant has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt."

Leas' attorney, Latah County Public Defender Steven C. Mahaffy of Moscow, pleaded with members of the jury to review the evidence closely, especially the denials of his client.

"No, no, no, no, not intentionally," said Mahaffy, repeating the denials. "Was he telling you the truth? You bet. You bet he was."

Leas faces up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine if found guilty. He is accused of taking his two daughters, ages 7 and 8 at the time, in violation of a custody order between him and his ex-wife, Ruth Mohr, formerly of Moscow and now of Boise.

Outside the presence of the jury, Leas answered questions from Mahaffy about alleged abuse of the children by Mohr and her husband. Idaho law provides that a parent can violate a custody order if the children are in imminent danger of physical harm.

But 2nd District Judge John R. Stegner of Moscow has consistently ruled throughout the case, including prior to trial, that the accusations by Leas of child abuse amount to hearsay and lack evidence enough to serve as a legal defense.

Even though one of the Leas children testified that she and her sister were spanked by their mother a number of times, made to stand in corners and locked in their room, Stegner said the discipline measures didn't amount to physical harm.

Leas also testified with the jury out of the courtroom that he reported some 20 or more alleged abusive incidents to authorities prior to fleeing with his children.

"Ruth Mohr's behavior is not on trial here. Fred Leas' behavior is," Stegner said, explaining why he has refused to let the defendant testify about the alleged abuse.

"I'm not saying I'm right, but I've given it the thought I have and I'm saying it's not relevant."

Mahaffy, while honoring Stegner's decisions before the jury, spent much time objecting for the record and making a case for appeal.

He has said several times that if Leas is convicted, he will appeal the decision on grounds that his client was not allowed an opportunity to tell "the whole story."

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Last modified: August 14, 1997
Email: Joe Huffman