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Friday, September 25, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Prospect Of Testimony By Defendant's Little Girl Nearly Derails Murder Trial

Seattle Times Snohomish County Bureau

EVERETT - The trial of Teresa Gaethe-Leonard is not short on drama. There's testimony about sex, betrayal, abuse, a slaying - and a marked antagonism between prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Then yesterday, the proceedings took a surprise twist when both the defendant and her lawyer were brought to tears, and for a short time a guilty plea or mistrial seemed equally possible.

The development occurred outside the presence of jurors, who will be asked to decide Gaethe-Leonard's fate. The Everett woman is charged with first-degree murder in the Feb. 20, 1997, death of her husband, Chuck Leonard, a North Middle School counselor.

Yesterday's action started when Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Michael Downes told the court he might call Gaethe-Leonard's 6-year-old daughter as a witness in the final stages of the trial.

Gaethe-Leonard began crying and her attorney, the usually articulate John Henry Browne, choked with emotion and couldn't speak.

Superior Court Judge Gerald Knight immediately authorized a break.

After a short recess, Browne announced Gaethe-Leonard was thinking - against his advice - that she would rather plead guilty than have her daughter testify.

"In my opinion, (the plea) would not be voluntary," said Browne, who implied an appeal. If the trial were to proceed with the child, Browne said, the defense would need more time to prepare.

Knight noted the trial could well be headed toward a mistrial; drawn-out proceedings could mean the loss of jurors.

There was another recess.

The judge also asked Trish Sowards, a mental-health expert on hand to testify, to determine if Gaethe-Leonard was mentally competent to continue with the proceedings.

Competency has been an issue in the case, partly because the defendant has twice attempted suicide since the shooting.

After a 20-minute evaluation, court resumed (still without the jury) and Sowards, a psychologist at Western State Hospital, reported that Gaethe-Leonard appeared stable enough to continue. But her condition might change if her daughter were called to the stand, Sowards added.

The relationship between mother and daughter is at the heart of the case.

Defense attorneys don't dispute that Gaethe-Leonard shot her estranged husband at his Lake Goodwin home, but deny prosecutors' allegations that she did so because he stood in the way of her plan to join and marry her millionaire boyfriend in Hawaii, taking the child with her.

Browne, and his assistant, Tim Tesh, have mounted an insanity and diminished-capacity defense, arguing that Gaethe-Leonard was sexually abused as a child and shot Leonard in a psychotic fit when she went to confront him with her belief that he was molesting their child.

Several hours after the dramatic turn of events, Downes told the court he had talked with the child during the lunch break and had decided not to call her as a witness.

But that could change, he warned, if Browne called Gaethe-Leonard to the stand during defense rebuttal.

Browne has said it is highly unlikely he will do so. "I'm under instructions by my client to do whatever to keep (the girl) off the stand."

The prosecutor's rebuttal case continued today. Closing arguments may occur early next week.

Anne Koch's phone message number is 425-745-7814. Her e-mail address is: akoch@seattletimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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