A paroled killer charged with murdering two mentally disabled women in a Social Security scam was assigned a new lawyer Monday with death-penalty experience.
Federal prosecutors may seek the death penalty against Linda Weston, who's now charged with murder, racketeering and hate crimes.
Weston, 52, appeared briefly in federal court Monday, the same day related state charges were dropped. She has been in custody since October 2011, when a landlord found four bedraggled adults locked in a squalid boiler room and called police.
Federal authorities last week unsealed an indictment that charges Weston, her daughter and three others with confining disabled adults like "zoo animals." The victims were often drugged, deprived of food and medical care, and forced to use buckets for bathrooms, officials said.
Weston used "cunning, trickery, force and coercion" to get mentally disabled people to designate her as their caretaker, allowing her to illegally collect about $212,000 in Social Security payments over 10 years, authorities charged. In all, authorities allege six disabled adults and four children were held captive in "subhuman" conditions in basements, attics and closets at various times between 2001 and 2011.
Defense lawyer George Yacoubian, who represented Weston for more than a year in state court, calls the federal murder and racketeering charges "inflated." Local authorities investigated both the 2005 death in Philadelphia and the 2008 death in Virginia, and declined to press charges, he noted.
"I think it's a reach," Yacoubian said. "Somebody dying in somebody's care does not make it a homicide."
Yacoubian also challenged the racketeering charge, arguing that federal authorities assumed a hierarchy within the group that wasn't there.
"Certainly, the RICO charges are inflated," he said. "RICO requires some sort of enterprise where subordinates take orders. ... There was no organization."
Because he does not have federal death-penalty experience, a judge Monday appointed capital lawyer Patricia McKinney to represent Weston on the federal charges. She and several co-defendants are due back in court Thursday for federal detention hearings.
Weston previously served time for the slow starvation death of a man locked in her Philadelphia apartment.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania urged officials Monday to expand a pilot program designed to prevent criminals from managing another person's Social Security benefits.
About 5.6 million representative payees — those who receive benefits on behalf of people who cannot manage the funds themselves — handle $61 billion in Social Security payments each year for about 7.6 million beneficiaries.
"These beneficiaries need to know their representatives are individuals who can be trusted," Casey wrote in a letter to Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue.