“I wanted to keep fighting; I wanted to prove to a jury that I was innocent in the death of Ella VanLeeuwen. But I put my family first, and settled my case.”
FRESNO CA, (May 1, 2013) – Mrs. Megan Martzen was charged with second degree murder and child abuse homicide. The minimum sentence, if convicted of the charges, was 25 years to life in prison. Following a dynamic defense provided by Jeffrey T. Hammerschmidt a jury trial ended in a hung jury, with the jury voting 10-2 and 8-4 not guilty on Counts 1 & 2, case settled for probation and community service. “A plea has been entered that really reflects accidental death and a series of accidents that occurred starting in the VanLeeuwen home and ending in Megan’s home and the plea definitely reflects that,” said defense Jeffrey T. Hammerschmidt.
While Mrs. Martzen remains steadfast in her claim of innocence, she took a plea agreement allowing her to remain with her family. The highly emotional case was followed closely by the media, and an exclusive interview was granted to the Fresno Bee’s Marc Benjamin. Please find the Bee’s detailed report on the tragic case below:
Marc Bemjamin, Fresno Bee
In an exclusive interview with The Bee this week, Martzen, 23, said her decision to take the district attorney’s plea deal for involuntary manslaughter was difficult. But after meeting with her lawyer, Jeff Hammerschmidt, and her mother, April Roque, she decided it was the best choice for her and her family.
Martzen was sentenced last week to three years’ probation and 250 hours of community service. She has served 52 days in Fresno County Jail.
Being called a “sociopath” during her sentencing and a “baby killer” by a correctional officer while in jail, hearing many of the behind-the-back whispers in her hometown of Reedley and seeing derogatory Facebook postings for much of the past four years gave Martzen a strong incentive to clear her name.
But she seems comfortable with her decision to plead no contest, exuding both relief and firm resoluteness about gaining custody of her son and living with her husband again.
“I know I’m innocent, and I knew the jurors saw my innocence (voting 10-2 for acquittal), so it was hard to go, ‘I’m innocent but I’m taking it, ‘ ” she said. “But it saved our family a whole lot of heartache because it was something I don’t think a lot of us emotionally could do again. One trial was enough.”
Martzen said Ella was seated near her when she fell from her bed on Feb. 21, 2009, less than four months into her marriage. She testified that she was working on her laptop and reaching for a pen when Ella fell. The toddler was immediately unresponsive, Martzen said.
Martzen was arrested for murder 14 months later and jailed — while six months pregnant with her son — until her family could raise $2 million to bail her out.
The time in jail was “a suck-it-up moment,” she said, recounting some of her worst memories: She was spit on by an inmate, correctional officers withheld basic necessities such as milk for no reason, and she lost 20 pounds at a time when she was expected to gain weight, the third trimester of her pregnancy.
“I try to block a lot of that out,” she said. “It was very traumatizing for someone who was never a part of that” “I was with the worst-of-the-worst offenders.”
The end of criminal proceedings allows the family to focus on custody issues and ending monitoring by the county’s Child Protective Services agency.
“It was a very, very hard decision, but for my husband and son to know that it was done and now we could tackle getting us under one roof and be the family we’re supposed to be, I knew this would be the best way to go, ” she said.
Had the case not been settled, the statute of limitations for counts of murder and child abuse causing death — of which she was acquitted 8-4 — would never run out, so Martzen could have been arrested at any time for the rest of her life, Hammerschmidt said. Under the plea agreement, the district attorney can’t refile any charges in Ella’s death.
The charge can be expunged from Martzen’s record after she successfully completes probation, he said.
Martzen’s 2-year-old son, Maverick, who was taken from Martzen by Child Protective Services officials five hours after he was born, is in the custody of her husband, Scott, who Megan calls “an amazing husband and father.”
The two live minutes away from each other in Reedley. She gets to visit Maverick 48 hours a week.
In the first year after Maverick was born, she was on call for breast-feeding 24 hours a day, but she couldn’t be with him for more than an hour at a time.
“We’ve maintained as much of a normal life as you can,” she said. “Maverick doesn’t know what’s going on … he obviously knows mommy and daddy don’t live together, but he doesn’t know why and he doesn’t understand why mommy can’t be there all the time. We try to keep it very normal, and we don’t want this to affect his life.”
But the criminal case and trial had impacts that extended well beyond Martzen’s family. They created a chasm among many people who were once close friends in the city of 25,000.
After bailing out of jail, she said she looked at items that were written about her — on social media and in the news media — but many of those people didn’t know her. Nevertheless, for someone who was always known for being friendly and popular, it was difficult to read.
“So many people had opinions about me and that was rough because I was not used to not being liked,” Martzen said. Her April 30 sentencing hearing was an in-person exposure to many of those hurtful comments. She said she knew the hearing would be difficult, but she didn’t expect some of the harsh accusations.
“I didn’t know how ugly it was going to get,” she said. “This has gone on for so long that everyone has an opinion, and the naysayers I really just have to take with a grain of salt. Hopefully, over time, we will all learn to forgive one another.”
Martzen continues to say that she would never have done anything to hurt Ella and that she misses caring for her and for her older brother, John.
Hammerschmidt said that the scientific evidence proved to the jury that Ella’s fall was one in a string of accidents — at least one occurring at the VanLeeuwens’ home.
Martzen hopes that someday the VanLeeuwens will allow someone to review with them the evidence that proves Ella’s death resulted from a series of accidents.
“My heart hurts that they were led to believe anything other than” accidents led to her death, Martzen said. Even though her family remains in Reedley, Martzen and her husband spend much of their time in Dinuba, where their spiritual leaders live. The couple has considered leaving Reedley, but their immediate family remains there.
“I’m not one to back away from adversity,” Martzen said. “I have nothing to be ashamed of. It was an accident, and I am not at the point where I feel I need to leave.”
Along with focusing on getting custody of her son, Martzen wants to start talking to babysitters and children’s caretakers about team babysitting.
If a second person had been with Martzen to corroborate Ella’s fall from the bed, the investigation probably would not have focused on her. Testimony during the trial revealed that prior bruising to Ella was caused by at least one previous accident in her family’s home.
Having to endure the death of a child in her care wasn’t something that Martzen thought could ever happen to her.
“I think girls are very apt to have that motherly instinct and for them it’s an easy job and one of the jobs you get asked to do right away, ” she said. “But you don’t think of all the repercussions it can have, like Ella falling off the bed.”
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6166, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beebenjamin on Twitter.