A developmentally disabled man who has been deaf since birth pleaded guilty to three felony counts of child sexual abuse last week.
Christopher L. Eckert, who has been in a state psychiatric institution for the past five years, is expected to be spared prison time, although the maximum penalty for his offenses is 21 years behind bars.
Instead, he is likely to be placed on probation and committed to a state mental health facility, Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza said Thursday. She scheduled sentencing for Dec. 18. In the meantime, Eckert signed a voluntary commitment order.
Eckert, 38, formerly of Limehouse Drive, Clarence, communicated with Sperrazza through American Sign Language used by his court-appointed attorney, Thomas Caserta Jr., and an official interpreter.
Caserta said Eckert reads at no more than a first-grade level and is "unable to perform daily tasks." Despite that, he graduated from St. Mary's School for the Deaf in 1991.
Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth R. Donatello said Eckert was ruled competent to stand trial earlier this year after almost five years of treatment by staff from the state Office of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.
Eckert touched the private parts of three girls under the age of 11 in Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda.
"I did it. It's my fault," Eckert said.
He pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct against one girl for a series of incidents between January 1999 and September 2001. He also pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree sexual abuse for single incidents with two other girls, both on March 22, 2003.
Eckert was indicted in June 2003 and arraigned in July of that year. By September 2003, Sperrazza had committed him to an institution.
Caserta said doctors concluded that Eckert's brain damage and deafness were caused in the womb, because his mother contracted rubella, also known as German measles, while she was pregnant.
Sperrazza said there were many lengthy conferences in her chambers with Donatello, Caserta and state mental health officials, trying to resolve the case appropriately. The judge said Eckert is likely to be assigned to some type of residential facility.
Eckert, who wore a coat and tie to court, said through the interpreter that he would like to go home and see his brother. Not being allowed to do so "hurts my heart," he said.