DEFIANCE - Minutes before she was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for murdering her mother, Erica Lynn Orta asked - against the advice of her attorneys - to change her plea back to not guilty.
"They don't want to defend me," Orta, a 25-year-old, married mother of three children who has a long criminal record, said after the hearing where her plea change request was denied. "They just want me to take a plea bargain."
Orta let a plea bargain deal she made fall apart when she refused earlier this month to testify against her co-defendant, Joseph Williams, as she had promised. The state needed her testimony to prosecute Williams and, when she refused, prosecutors said they were forced to drop their charges against him.
Orta said she did not testify against Williams because she wanted to change her own plea back to not guilty and had been told that testifying against him could hurt her defense.
In exchange for her testimony and a guilty plea to murder, the plea bargain would have dropped five other charges against Orta: aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, tampering with evidence, grand theft of a motor vehicle, and theft.
Now she faces those five charges again. Yesterday at her sentencing in Defiance County Common Pleas Court, Prosecutor Jeffrey Strausbaugh asked the court to schedule a trial for Orta on them.
Even though Orta could spend the rest of her life in prison on the murder sentence, Mr. Strausbaugh said a guilty verdict on the remaining charges should delay her parole eligibility.
"This was just an absolutely brutal and senseless killing," he said.
While he talked, Orta shook her head.
Orta's cousin, Lisa Bishop, asked the court to remember the suffering of Orta's mother, Diane Acton, who prosecutors say was choked to death by Orta, who was on a mission to steal her jewelry.
After choking her 48-year-old mother in the kitchen of Mrs. Acton's Defiance home, Orta dragged her mother outside, bound her with duct tape, and put her in the trunk of her car with help from Williams, according to an arrest warrant. Orta drove her mother's car to Lima, and abandoned it there - with her mother's body still in the trunk.
"I can't even begin to imagine the horror she went through," Ms. Bishop said in a tearful statement. "Erica, because of you I had to bury my aunt and my friend."
Judge Joseph Schmenk read from a list of Orta's previous convictions, starting with an extensive juvenile record including felonious assault and drug paraphernalia, before going on to disorderly conduct, theft, obstruction of justice, and drug possession charges blotting her adult record.
"The sentence required by law is certainly appropriate," he told Orta.
The law, he said, gave him little choice. The prison sentence of 15 years to life is mandatory and Judge Schmenk said he saw no point in fining Orta because she is indigent.
Orta and her husband, Dan, vowed after the hearing to appeal Judge Schmenk's decisions.
"I'm not guilty of everything they charged me with," Orta said, adding that she was "not quite sure" if she was guilty of any of the charges.
Judge Schmenk did not include in Orta's public file the most recent letter she wrote to him asking to change her plea back to not guilty. She has changed her mind several times on her plea.
In a November letter asking to change her plea back to not guilty, she wrote to Judge Schmenk:
"As you know I recently pleaded guilty to murder. At the time, I was confused and truly overwhelmed with everything going on. Now that I have had time to comprehend my situation, I realize my counsel failed to try and present the court with a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, based on a very good argument that the killing occurred during the heat of passion."
Orta said after the hearing her mother had thrown her out of the house when she was 13 after fights that Orta blamed on her mother's problems with alcohol.
Judge Schmenk yesterday appointed a fourth attorney to represent Orta in the remaining charges against her. She fired her first attorney and disregarded the advice of the next two attorneys, who were appointed to serve together.
Orta and her husband, who this month was released from prison where he had been held for domestic violence against her, said it is hard to find able court-appointed attorneys.
Their children, a 3-year-old boy and 1-year-old girl, are in foster care. An 8-year-old son Erica bore from another relationship is in the care of his father.
Dan Orta said he is living in Defiance; his wife remained last night in the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio.
Contact Jane Schmucker at:
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