Mother pleads guilty, but ill, to murdering 3-year-old daughter
Former Jackson Township resident Regina Lester told a York County judge she doesn't remember killing 3-year-old daughter Isabel Rose Godfrey nearly three years ago while high on a cocktail of illegal drugs and prescribed medications.
Lester, 33, pleaded guilty but mentally ill to a charge of third-degree murder before Common Pleas Judge Maria Musti Cook on Wednesday, March 27.
Senior deputy prosecutor Kara Bowser told the judge that Isabel, known as Bella, suffered multiple blunt-force injuries and bite wounds, and that her body showed signs of asphyxia.
Northern Regional Police Detective Michael Hine previously testified Bella's death was caused by a combination of the blunt-force trauma, asphyxiation and a spinal injury.
It was an open plea, meaning it will be up to Cook to determine Lester's punishment. She's facing a maximum possible sentence of 20 to 40 years in state prison.
Sentencing has been set for June 27 and is expected to include testimony and take about two hours.
Bowser read into the record a summary of how Northern York County Regional Police were called to Chesapeake Estates on June 8, 2016, and found Bella unresponsive inside Lester's home.
Ran around naked: Lester was naked and hugging a tree when officers arrived, then started banging on a neighbor's door, yelling that she needed to kill the neighbor's children, according to police.
Andrew Day, a neighbor who regularly baby-sat Bella, has told The York Dispatch he performed CPR on Bella until realizing the little girl was gone, then helped tackle and hold down Lester until officers could get there.
Before officers arrived, Lester told a neighbor she had to kill Bella to get the "darkness" out of her, according to court documents.
Defense attorney Suzanne Smith and Bowser said medical experts retained by both the defense and prosecution agree that Lester cannot pursue a defense of insanity because her voluntary intoxication at the time legally disqualifies her.
However, the medical experts agreed that Lester was mentally ill at the time she killed Bella, attorneys said.
Lester was previously ruled competent to stand trial after spending about 13 months in a state mental hospital.
Dr. Larry Rotenberg, the prosecution's psychiatric expert, determined that when Bella was killed, Lester was suffering from multi-substance use disorder, according to Bowser.
The defense's expert, Dr. Richard Fischbein, came to the same conclusion but used the term "toxic psychosis," Smith said.
Prior issues: Rotenberg also noted in his medical report that Lester had struggled with mental-health issues before the murder, including bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and possibly schizophrenia.
Testing showed the drugs in Lester's system at the time of Bella's death included fentanyl, K2, marijuana and the anti-anxiety drug lorazepam, Judge Cook noted in court.
In court Wednesday, the judge asked Lester what she was able to recall about the murder.
A heavily medicated Lester said she can't remember hurting her youngest child, but she recounted what she could remember, starting with her getting home from work that day:
"I had gotten a blunt and put fentanyl in it, and put K2 on top of that and put bath salts on top of that, and rolled it up," she said. Plus, she was on prescribed medications as well.
'I was crazy': After smoking the cigar filled with marijuana, "I wasn't myself — I was crazy," Lester said in court.
Smith noted that her client had been using synthetic marijuana for some time.
Smith told The York Dispatch the same thing Lester's mother reported shortly after Bella's death — that Lester was smoking K2, also called synthetic marijuana, because she was being drug-tested by the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families.
At the time, the child-protective agency wasn't testing for K2, also called spice, county officials have said. K2 is generally made in China of available dried vegetation sprayed with a concoction of unregulated chemicals, officials have said.
"K2? I was using that quite often," Lester said in court.
In exchange for Lester's plea to third-degree murder, her other charges in the case will be dropped, including first-degree murder.
Smith said that because Lester was intoxicated, she couldn't form the intent that's required to be guilty of first-degree murder, which is why the plea was to third-degree murder.
Third-degree murder requires malice but doesn't require intent or premeditation.
Bowser said in court that prosecutors agree with the conclusion of Rotenberg and Fischbein that Lester was mentally ill when she killed her daughter and that Lester's drug use contributed to her mental illness at the time.
Hospital assault: Lester remains charged with aggravated assault in a separate case for allegedly kicking a York Hospital staff member after she was taken there from the murder scene.
Bowser told the judge that the assault case will be dismissed at the time of Lester's sentencing.
Cook ordered that a full pre-sentence report on Lester be completed by county probation officials and directed them to include a report and a sentencing recommendation.
Bowser declined comment until after sentencing.
Smith called the case tragic.
Must live with it: "Every day she lives with this," Smith said — despite the fact that Lester remains heavily medicated.
Lester's mental-health diagnoses prior to Bella's murder came after Lester was involved in a car crash in her 20s, during which she suffered a serious head injury, according to Smith.
"She does feel bad (and) she misses her kids," Smith said. "I don't even know when she realized her daughter was dead and that she did it."
Smith said no one knows Lester's long-term mental-health prognosis.
Lester is given medication twice a day, designed to keep her from becoming psychotic again, according to Smith.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.