Linda Weston - the Philadelphia woman charged with enslaving and torturing disabled adults for years in a Tacony basement so she could steal their benefit checks - pleaded guilty Wednesday in a deal that spared her a potential death sentence.
Instead, she agreed to accept a life term plus 80 years after admitting to all 196 federal counts filed against her including charges of murder, kidnapping, sex trafficking, hate crimes, forced labor, and benefits fraud.
Weston, 55, appeared addled and confused through much of Wednesday's hearing, at one point loudly proclaiming she wanted to enter a "not-guilty plea" before quietly reversing herself.
Her decision ends years of internal Justice Department debate over whether to seek her execution for a gut-churning series of crimes.
"This is a sufficient sentence to mete out justice here," U.S. District Judge Cynthia M. Rufe said, signaling that she intends to adopt the sentence Weston and prosecutors have agreed upon at a formal sentencing hearing Nov. 5.
Weston's lawyers, Patricia McKinney and Paul M. George, said their client was ready to admit to what she had done almost as soon as she and four others were indicted in early 2013.
"Her decision was motivated largely by concern for her children, so there could be some sort of closure for them," McKinney said.
Yet, those same children were among Weston's many victims in a decadelong, four-state conspiracy outlined in chilling detail in a plea memorandum filed Wednesday.
She and the other members of what prosecutors have dubbed the "Weston family" lured, confined, and controlled their mentally disabled targets, while seeking to make money off of them in any way they could.
Together, the documents say, the group stole more than $200,000 in Social Security benefits from their captives by pressuring them to sign documents naming Weston their designated payee. They forced others, including Weston's 17-year-old niece, into prostitution.
To keep the costs of care low, they locked their wards naked in basements, attics, cupboards, and closets. They fed them with depressant-spiked beans and ramen. And when supplies ran low, they forced their victims to eat their own and other people's waste.
"The mentally disabled individuals were targeted and in large part were estranged from their families," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Faithe Moore Taylor. "The Weston family offered them a place to stay."
The group shuttled their captives from Philadelphia to Texas, Virginia, Florida, and back again to avoid detection and left in their wake the bodies of those who did not survive malnourishment and beatings with sticks, bats, guns, and hammers.
All the while, Weston admitted Wednesday, they continued to add victims to their menagerie by snatching them off of street corners, proposing romantic relationships, and even forcing their captives to have children together so Weston could file new government benefit claims.
Authorities rescued four of the family's victims in October 2011 after discovering them emaciated, covered in filth, and chained in an apartment basement in the Tacony section of the city. The captives begged police not to take them away for fear that they would be punished for disobedience.
But even as prosecutors detailed that depravity in court, it was hard to reconcile the crimes they described with the timid woman who sat before them in court.
She answered the judge's questions in a meek, childlike voice - her answers frequently coaxed by her lawyers with encouraging smiles and pats on the shoulder.
She told the judge she was on medication for schizophrenia and depression and still had trouble reading and writing after receiving only a fourth-grade education.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Barrett would not say Wednesday whether the Justice Department had made a definitive choice on whether to pursue a rare federal death-penalty case before Weston agreed to plead guilty.
The decision to offer a plea deal, he said, came after a "very deliberate process" in consultation with Weston's defense team and U.S. Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch. All of Weston's victims and their families were notified in advance of the plea deal and none objected, Barrett said.
McKinney, Weston's lawyer, said her client's own childhood - marked by physical and sexual abuse - justified the cautiousness with which prosecutors' approached their decision.
She blamed the media and local police for painting Weston as a monster.
"Usually people are not born with a '666' on their heads," McKinney said. "Nothing that Linda Weston did was not also done to her as a child.
"The safest place Linda Weston has ever lived," she added, "is the place she is now."
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