In Missouri, Senior Citizens Who Kill Often Get Away with Murder

In Missouri, Senior Citizens Who Kill Often Get Away with Murder
SHUTTERSTOCK/Volt Collection

Donald Rowland would tell police he looked at the clock the exact moment he made up his mind. It was 1:18 on Halloween morning 2014. Rowland, an 88-year-old veteran and retired bank executive who'd lived the spotless life of a principled military man, decided that he and his wife of 64 years should die.

"I kept telling myself, 'You shouldn't do it,'" he said later.

But his course was set. It was 6 a.m. when he carried through with the idea, using a large kitchen knife to stab and kill 86-year-old Betty Rowland while she slept on her side of the bed.

His attempt to use the same knife on himself did not go as planned; the pain was too much. Efforts to slit his wrists and the insides of his elbows were futile, although they weakened him such that by the time his daughter showed up later that morning he had been rendered immobile, in a pool of blood. He asked her to smother him with a pillow.

Neighbors reacted with shock. The charges were first-degree murder and armed criminal action. Bond was set at $1 million.

In early March, Rowland accepted a plea deal. In exchange for an admission of guilt, prosecutors agreed to reduce the charges all the way down to involuntary manslaughter.

Six weeks later, Rowland appeared in court again, a wispy-haired man with bushy eyebrows in a striped prison jumpsuit. This time, he was here for sentencing. Boone County Circuit Judge Kevin Crane delivered the decision: a suspended sentence, with five years probation. Rowland would only serve prison time if he violated the terms.

Five and a half months after killing his wife, Donald Rowland was free.

And his case is not an outlier. In the 30 homicides the Riverfront Times identified in recent decades in Missouri involving offenders over the age of 75, only one person was sentenced to prison time.

A whole set of societal questions have come along with the combination of aging baby boomers and advancements in modern medicine, the result of which has drastically increased the population of senior citizens. Often overlooked are the occasions in which the judicial system must decide the fate of an elderly criminal.

The cases that are a part of this investigation were gleaned from fifteen years of the FBI's supplemental homicide reports dating back to 2001. They involve killers as old as 93. On par with the rising prevalence of murder-suicide among the elderly, according to studies by the Violence Policy Center and others, a dozen of the cases involved incidents in which no one was left to prosecute — the cases were ruled murder-suicides. In a couple others, the acts were deemed justifiable.

But in those instances in which someone came under investigation, the conclusions offer a glimpse into judicial empathy for the elderly. They are stories of fed-up spouses, neighborly disputes and attempted murder-suicides in which the assailant survived. They are stories about what happens when you go your whole life without shooting or stabbing someone, and then one day, you do.

They are stories that raise the question of whether, at a certain age, you can get away with murder.

• • •

By all accounts, Donald Rowland had lived a model life. A 30-year veteran of the United States Air Force, Rowland served in administrative roles during World War II, and spent time in Korea, Japan and Vietnam. He retired at age 47, a lieutenant colonel.

When his time in the military concluded, Betty and Donald moved around before settling in Columbia, Missouri, in 1993. Rowland worked as a bank teller, climbing the ladder to vice president of a local branch and, along the way, earning friends in some well-respected pockets of the Midwestern college town's community. He drank infrequently — a glass during nights out at the country club — and had been one of just a few people at his high school who'd refused to pick up cigarettes. He and Betty raised four kids, and over 64 years of marriage, the family tree grew to include thirteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

"I never saw him waiver," said Robin Jones, Rowland's oldest daughter, at his sentencing hearing. "He has been my strength and moral compass. This was my dad's honor. His life."

Betty was a lover of music, a piano teacher who played organ at church and at the services of military men who'd died. When the Air Force sent Donald to Japan, Betty came along and taught piano at Yokota Air Base. She spent her elder years playing bridge with friends, who enjoyed her sense of humor and appreciated her kindness toward any mistakes they made.

Not long before she died, Betty, who'd been in a wheelchair for years, suffered a stroke. She became more dependent on Donald. When their kids pushed for the couple to make a move toward assisted living, they reluctantly agreed.

What made the circumstances of her sudden death all the more shocking was the way she'd spoken to friends in the days prior. Betty Rowland did not want to die.

"She was very excited about her upcoming trip to Hawaii with Don," wrote Nancy Rogers, who played bridge with Betty, in a hand-written letter to Judge Crane. "She spoke glowingly about a recent trip to a resort in Mexico she had taken with Don and her son's family."

Interviewed from his hospital bed at about 5:40 p.m. the day of the murder, Rowland told investigators about the root of the anxiety he'd been experiencing. About how he and his wife had been sorting through their belongings to try to lighten the load for a move to the smaller place. About how he hadn't wanted to get rid of some of his World War II stuff. About how he'd brought out their collection of photographs and then surrounded his wife with six boxes, one for each of the kids, plus a throw-away box and one for keepers.

"And that's how you know you're just getting old," he said.

The night before the murder, at about 10:30 p.m., Rowland took for the first time a pill called Celexa, an antidepressant he'd been prescribed earlier that day. He was under the impression, he told police, that the pill would help him sleep, something that had been scarce lately. It was the combination of this pill with Rowland's sleep deprivation and existing prostate medicine, Oxybutynin, that Dr. Tahir Rahman would say might have caused an adverse reaction. The prosecution rebutted this claim, pointing to Rowland's calm demeanor for proof of his mental stability.

At the end of the interview with police, an investigator informed Rowland they had a warrant for his arrest.

"And I know you knew that was coming," the officer said.

"Yes," Rowland responded. "It's a terrible thing to think that at 88, I'll spend the rest of my life in jail."

• • •

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