A Cochranton-area woman has been sentenced to 10 to 20 years in state prison for her no-contest plea last week to third-degree murder in the 2021 fatal poisoning of her adopted handicapped son.
Mary Diehl received the sentence Wednesday from Crawford County Court of Common Pleas Judge Mark Stevens in connection with the September 2021 death of Najir, age 11.
Dozens of people supporting Diehl were in the courtroom’s gallery as were several biological family members of Najir. Security was tight with four county sheriff’s deputies stationed inside and two outside the courtroom.
Prior to the sentence being handed down, Stevens asked Diehl if she wanted to make any comment, but she declined.
The judge called Najir’s death “unnecessary, unexplainable and unjustifiable” before sentencing Diehl.
“There is no viable explanation for this,” he said.
In November 2021, Diehl was charged by Pennsylvania State Police with a general charge of criminal homicide for poisoning the boy by giving him windshield washer fluid to drink the night of Sept. 5 at the Diehl home in East Fairfield Township. Najir wasn’t ambulatory on his own, according to authorities.
Last Friday, Diehl entered a no-contest plea in county court to a charge of third-degree murder, avoiding what was expected to be a two-week trial with potentially up to 30 witnesses being called.
In pleading no contest, Diehl did not admit guilt, but agreed there was enough evidence to convict her had the case gone to trial.
Diehl’s 10- to 20-year sentence was part of a negotiated plea deal between Eric Hackwelder, her defense attorney, and Crawford County District Attorney Paula DiGiacomo.
Also as part of the negotiated plea deal, the defense had agreed to ask the court to impose no less than a six-year minimum sentence for Diehl while the DA’s office agreed not to ask for more than a 10-year minimum sentence.
By accepting that deal with a negotiated sentence recommendation, Stevens could set Diehl’s minimum sentence between six to 10 years but with a maximum of 20 years. Third-degree murder carries a maximum sentence of 40 years.
Prior to the sentencing, DiGiacomo outlined what evidence would have been presented at trial while praising the work of Pennsylvania State Police, Crawford County Coroner Scott Schell and forensic pathologist Dr. Eric Vey in pursuing the case.
When authorities first met with Diehl the morning of Sept. 6, 2021, at her home, Diehl told investigators that Najir had health problems, including suffering from chronic seizures, DiGiacomo said.
The death first was attributed to respiratory failure due to chronic seizure disorder. No autopsy was done, though toxicology screening was done by the coroner’s office.
Toxicology testing samples tissue, blood and other body fluids to identify potential toxins in the body, including prescription medication and other drugs and substances. Toxicology results received in late October 2021 found methanol poisoning in the child’s blood samples. The test results then were reviewed by Vey at the request of the coroner’s office and state police.
Diehl was charged with the child’s homicide on Nov. 8, 2021, following an interview that day with state police at the Meadville barracks.
DiGiacomo told the court that Diehl “gave a constitutionally valid statement” to police.
In that statement, Diehl told troopers that “she felt like she did him (Najir) a favor,” DiGiacomo said. Diehl had “filled a little cup with lions and bears on it,” then gave it to Najir who drank it.
“She said ‘it was to free him’ and when asked what that meant, she said ‘that he passes’ and passes meant dying,” DiGiacomo said.
“I don’t know if we’d ever have discovered her actions except for the work of the state police and coroner’s office in the case,” she added.
The district attorney said she felt the elements of the case would have convinced a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
“The facts are what matter here,” DiGiacomo said.
In his brief statement to the court, defense attorney Hackwelder reminded the judge that more than 100 letters of support from Diehl’s family and friends had been presented.
“It’s a tragic case for so many people,” he said in asking for a six- to 12-year sentence. “The only thing I can say is it’s a tragedy.”
Hackwelder told the court that in representing Diehl the past 18 months, “the person I know is kind and intelligent.” He noted the strong show of support for Diehl and asked the court to take her life in total into consideration at sentencing.
Stevens acknowledged reading through all the letters of support that had been presented to the court prior to sentencing as well as the transcript of Diehl’s interview with police.
Stevens said the letters were impactful in their own way, but for “taking an 11-year-old’s life without justification, without explanation,” any “sentence imposed needs to be impactful.”
“No young person should ever lose their life for no reason,” the judge said before pronouncing sentence. “I don’t think anyone of us thinks it’s OK.
“The core of the decision (on the sentence) is an 11-year-old who is no longer with us,” Stevens said.
While Diehl had much support and impacted many people’s lives positively over the years, “I’m not sure any of it outweighs the taking of someone’s life in this context,” he added before handing down the 10- to 20-year term.
The judge did give Diehl 492 days credit for pre-sentence incarceration. He also ordered her to serve a period of 12 months of supervised community reentry into society unless she is paroled prior to serving out the sentence.
Following the sentencing, DiGiacomo said she was satisfied with the sentence, but declined additional comment.
Hackwelder told The Meadville Tribune that he had hoped for a lower minimum sentence of six years. He said he needed to discuss the matter with Diehl, but he possibly may petition county court for a reconsideration of the sentence.