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

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The Rowland case was not the first Columbia had seen involving an elderly offender in a homicide. On November 14, 2003, 83-year-old Marjorie Leslie called police to her home, where they found her husband, James, dead on his back, holding a large kitchen knife.

Marjorie told police that James, who was 86 and had severe dementia, had become more aggressive toward her recently. On the morning of the incident, she said, he'd been following her around the house nagging until the argument came to a head in the kitchen. When James got a knife, she retreated to the bedroom to get her gun, then returned. Marjorie told police she couldn't remember the specifics of what James said to her next, but she remembered the gap between them closing by a few feet, and she shot him twice in the upper torso.

Police quickly started to raise questions. The positioning of the knife in James' right hand looked more suited to do the chopping it was intended for than to stab someone, an officer noted. And, if Marjorie was as agile as she'd claimed — and James as immobile — police wondered why she hadn't simply fled the home to a neighbor's.

Additionally, as police canvassed the block to talk to people in surrounding houses, one neighbor informed authorities that a few months prior, Marjorie had told her that if anything ever happened, she needed to tell police that James abused her. She added that Marjorie said "the problem with technology was that it keeps people alive too long" and "they shoot horses when they get too old." The woman had taken the statements as jokes.

Leslie was charged with second-degree murder. She pled to voluntary manslaughter and received probation, plus a five-year deferred prison sentence. She was released from probation, ahead of schedule, in 2007. In 2010, she died.

As it happened, Kevin Crane, the judge in the Rowland case, served as prosecutor in the Leslie case. Crane declined to talk about Rowland, citing the defendant's continuing probation under his watch, but openly discussed the case of Marjorie Leslie.

Crane's underlying thesis was that in any case, many factors should be considered in reaching a plea deal or providing a sentence. In the Leslie case, Crane considered the defendant's lack of criminal history, her husband's cognitive state, his opinion that she was unlikely to reoffend, and the fact that the victim's family — which consisted of the couple's sole son — was pulling for probation.

He also considered age.

"I think when you start getting into that age where you're having to wrestle with, 'Am I going to be able to take care of my spouse? Am I going to have to move into a nursing home? Can I afford it?' I think those are stressors that exist in your late 70s that don't necessarily exist when you're younger than that," Crane says.

In the Rowland case, JR Hobbs, Rowland's attorney, argued for probation by citing Rowland's character, drawing attention to his squeaky-clean record and 30 years in the military. He talked about several mitigating factors, including the medication Rowland had recently started, and hit on how the Rowlands' impending move to assisted living might have impacted Donald's psyche.

"His sleep deprivation, his anxiety, giving up his belongings, moving to assisted living, the fear of the unknown, coupled with his failure to seek the type of treatment that he has since sought, all contributed to this regrettable situation," Hobbs said in court. The totality of the factors, he said, showed that Rowland "certainly was not one motivated with an evil spirit."

Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Merilee Crockett raised questions about the impact of the medication and the characterization of Rowland's state of mind, saying that if the case had gone to trial, it probably would have come down to a "battle between the psychological experts."

"The state's evidence would have been that when police were called to the house, Mr. Rowland very rationally and calmly explained his reasonings for committing this act," she said.

Putting specific evidentiary factors aside, sending elderly defendants to prison presents logistical complications.

As of June 2015, only about 60 of the roughly 32,000 inmates in the Missouri state prison system were 70 years of age or older at the time of their incarceration. Including inmates who've grown old behind bars, the state prison system houses about 260 inmates over the age of 70.

While the elder population remains a relatively small part of the equation, the number of aging offenders — defined as those 50 or above — has risen by more than 70 percent in the last decade.

Such residents complicate the system. A 2012 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found that it costs an average of about $68,000 a year to incarcerate someone aged 50 or older, compared to about $34,000 for the average prisoner.

In response to the changing demographics of Missouri prisons, the state department of corrections now operates five pre-hospice facilities, known as enhanced care units. Stationed on campus at correctional centers, the ECUs provide care for the elderly. All five have opened since 2010 — two this year — and the department has plans to open more.

The challenges of locking up an older defendant were not lost on Crane. And Crockett — who, as prosecutor, recommended a seven-year prison sentence for Rowland but deferred to the court on the issue of whether to grant probation — raised a similar concern.

In court she argued that Rowland had been clear-headed when he took the life of someone who did not want to die. Later, though, she says that she wonders what a stricter punishment would look like for someone of Rowland's age. She notes his deteriorating health during the judicial process.

"There comes in all the questions of what do we do with someone who is 88 years old," she says.

All other things besides age being equal, Crane says, he'd have viewed the Leslie case differently had it involved a couple in their mid-40s.

"I would be more likely to put the 83-year-old on probation or recommend a less harsh punishment than the 45-year-old," he says.

• • •

There are other cases. In Portageville, a little town at the top of the bootheel, an older father killed his 20-year-old son.

Eugene Pardon, then 76, and his common-law wife Linda Nolen, 44, awoke to screaming during the early morning of April 28, 2006. Pardon's son Dusty, who had a history of drug and alcohol abuse as well as violence, was fighting with his 15-year-old girlfriend. He had her pinned on the bed.

According to statements given to police, Linda broke open the locked door, and Dusty redirected his drunken anger toward Linda and Eugene. When Dusty blocked attempts to call 911, Eugene, who had retrieved a pistol from his room, decided he'd try to drive to the police department for help. Dusty confronted him in the driveway, waving a beer bottle as a weapon. Eugene raised the gun, at which point, he told police, Dusty cajoled him to pull the trigger. He fired a single shot into his son's head.

The charge was second-degree murder and armed criminal action, but the two sides reached a plea deal: involuntary manslaughter. Pardon got three years probation.

On July 24, 2008, Jackie Williams and Consietta Shirley got into it on the way to a small gathering of women at a Kansas City apartment complex, according to police documents. A resident told police that after buzzing the two into the building, she heard fighting outside her door, and then a loud thud. When she came out, Shirley, 49, was face down at the bottom of the stairway.

Williams, who was 80, was originally investigated for aggravated assault. When Shirley died at the hospital the next day, it became a case of murder.

Yet she was never actually charged with anything. The Jackson County Prosecutor's office was unable to provide details about why the case disappeared.

More, still: A jury acquitted a 76-year-old woman in Eldon of charges she ran over and killed the wife of the man with whom she was having an affair in 2004.

Citing an inability to overcome the claim of self-defense, the Jackson County Prosecutor's office decided to drop a case involving an 88-year-old man who shot and killed a 29-year-old during an argument in a Kansas City apartment in 2009.

In 2010, in rural Cedar County, an 84-year-old man shot and killed his 34-year-old stepson during an argument in their front yard. Murder charges were filed, then dropped. But a new prosecutor reopened the case in 2012, and Sammie Harris was eventually convicted of voluntary manslaughter and second-degree assault. He received five years probation.

Arnold man Edwin Hipp will be the next to test the system. The 83-year-old told police he shot his wife twice, once in the abdomen and a second time close range in the neck, according to the Post-Dispatch. He'd wrestled the gun away from her after she pulled it from a recliner during an argument, he told police. He is charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action. The next hearing is scheduled for July 27.

In the lone exception to these elderly offenders avoiding prison time, a property-related dispute between neighbors in rural Wright County came to a head in 2008. Charles Barnes, 80, shot and killed 69-year-old John Hamrick.

Barnes, too, pled guilty, but this time prosecutors maintained the charge of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. He died six years in, of apparent natural causes, at the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre.

And then there are the dozen murder-suicides among the 75-and-over crowd, which — given the shakiness of the numbers in the supplemental homicide reports — likely only represent a portion of such incidents in Missouri over the last decade and a half. (One expert estimates the number is "much higher.")

Among the cases that surface from the FBI's Missouri data, there is a split between cases in which there are signs of an agreement among husband and wife and cases in which there was seemingly no such pact.

Within the latter group, the stories start to sound so similar they're tough to distinguish. They are male perpetrators with ill female spouses. The stress of caregiving permeates. A controllable life slips away. To the surface rises the pain in watching your life partner deteriorate.

In St. Louis County, in 2008, an 85-year-old woman in recent worsening health was found deceased, lying on her side with her hands tucked under her head. A son told police that he was sure his father, who was found with a self-inflicted gunshot wound a room over, feared being alone.

In Fenton, in 2014, an 81-year-old man called his daughter to say that he had just shot and killed his wife, that he could not stand to see her in her current condition, that he planned to do himself next.

In Liberty, in 2004, police found the lifeless bodies of an 82-year-old man and 85-year-old woman. Their faces were cherry red, the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning. Wine glasses were sitting out as if they'd shared a final glass.

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