By Joe Beck
WINCHESTER -- A circuit court jury Thursday sentenced Sherry Lee Cruz to 36 years in prison after convicting her of first-degree murder and several other charges stemming from arson at her apartment in June.
The fire at 300-302 N. Kent St. killed Cruz's 2-year-old son Christian and led to her convictions on additional charges of arson and four counts of child abuse.
Cruz, 34, stood with her head bowed and her upper body shaking as she heard the sentence, which came at the end of a three-day trial during which prosecution witnesses testified that she set the apartment on fire with gasoline.
Cruz was able to rescue four of her five children, and defense attorneys David Hensley and Christopher Collins contended that she also tried to rescue Christian and nearly died in the attempt.
Cruz was burned during the fire and taken by helicopter to a Washington, D.C., area hospital for treatment of her injuries, Hensley said.
Hensley urged the jury to sentence his client to 25 years in prison, the least she could have received under state law.
But Commonwealth's Attorney Alexander Iden argued that Cruz was dangerous and needed to be imprisoned for a long, but unspecified period of time. While agreeing with the defense that her impoverished life was filled hardships well before the fire, he said the same could also be said of countless others who overcome their troubles and would never consider murdering a child by arson.
Both sides sparred over the meaning of a photo that was projected on a courtroom screen for the jury to consider. The photo, taken days before the fire, showed four of Cruz's five children - including Christian -- beaming for the camera and appearing healthy and safe.
Cruz's attorneys cited the photo and testimony from several defense witnesses as evidence that Cruz was far from the child murderer and abuser the prosecution had portrayed.
Prosecutors called Carol Johnson, Cruz's mother, who testified that the surviving children depicted in the photo have been living with her since the fire. Some of them have been suffering from recurring nightmares and other behavioral problems, DeHaven said.
Johnson said taking care of the children has also forced her to sometimes miss work from a job that didn't leave her with much to live on even before she took in the children.
"Our rent has gotten terribly behind," Johnson said. "I'm facing eviction."
Steven Jennings, executive director of Teens Opposing Poverty, a nonprofit organization in Berryville, said he had visited Cruz and her children several times when they were staying in different motels. Jennings said Cruz was suffering from a pancreatic illness and needed help with her rent.
"I saw normal, healthy kids," Jennings said, adding, "They paid appropriate attention to her. I saw no shyness, no fear, no coldness toward her at all."
Hensley said after the hearing that he considered the 36-year prison sentence to be fair, given the jury's apparent acceptance of the prosecution's version of events and that Cruz could have received up to two life sentences.
Judge John Wetsel set a final sentencing hearing for 10 a.m. May 20. State law allows Wetsel to either agree with the jury's sentencing decision or set it lower, but he is prohibited from imposing a stricter sentence.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org