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

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click to enlarge Donald Rowland, shown in a mug shot after his arrest
  • Donald Rowland, shown in a mug shot after his arrest

Murder-suicide isn't reliably tracked in any one national database. Data on such cases among the elderly is scarce, but there is growing evidence that the phenomenon is occurring more frequently.

Since the Violence Policy Center started tracking murder-suicides through media reports in the early 2000s, the percentage of murder-suicides that involved an offender over the age of 55 has grown from 21 percent to 33 percent. Two-thirds of that increase came from 2011 to 2014, the three most recent years included in the study.

Dr. Donna Cohen is a University of South Florida researcher and an expert on the topic of elderly murder-suicide. On several occasions, she has presented her findings at trial. Her research shows 2016 is on track to double 2015 in murder-suicides among individuals 55 and over. So far this year, her researchers have come across 35 such cases across the country.

The hardest question to answer is why. Cohen believes it is a complex web that starts but does not end with a basic population increase among the elderly. She cites parallel factors. Social values about the meaning of life have shifted. Meanwhile, men in the baby boomer generation tend to hold a different view of their role within the family, a role that can be deeply rooted in control.

The circumstances of age can chisel away at the foundation. In these instances of murder-suicides predominantly committed by elderly males, the integrity of a relationship can come under attack by worsening health problems, either suffered by the eventual perpetrator or his wife. In both instances, Cohen says, the provider feels an inability to offer adequate care.

Cohen finds further evidence in the modest, middle-class homes in which these incidents usually occur.

"It happens in a subgroup of our population where people have built the world around them," she says.

When a murder-suicide doesn't go as expected, leaving an offender alive to face the charges — and, for that matter, when an elderly perpetrator is at the center of any homicide — the judicial system is left a difficult task.

According to case law, the age of the defendant should not be a factor in sentencing, says Bobbi Flowers, co-director of the Center for Excellence in Elder Law at the Stetson University College of Law. Defense attorneys have tried for years to argue the additional significance of, for example, a 10-year sentence for a 70-year-old versus the same sentence for a 30-year-old, Flowers says. One might mean life, the other, a landmark. But the courts have rejected the distinction.

Yet any prosecutor would take into account the biases a jury might carry toward an elder defendant, says Flowers, a former prosecutor herself. Age, then, finds an easy path into plea negotiations.

In Cohen's experience, in caregiver cases specifically, judges have wrestled with how to hand down sentences as they weigh the killer's age, health and involvement with caregiving.

And yet the victim's characteristics also matter. Cohen's testimony has provided proof for some judges that caregiving is an added and significant stressor for an elderly individual. But one judge drew a distinction when Cohen was brought in during a case involving the death of a younger individual who was severely disabled. Cohen's research, the judge said, couldn't be applied to all caregiving situations, but rather only proved the weight of the job when it came to elder care.

There are no judicial guidelines for sorting out caregiver homicides.

"The question becomes," says Cohen, "How do you weigh the mitigating circumstances?"

• • •

When it came time for Judge Crane to deliver his sentencing decision in the case of Donald Rowland, he asked the defendant to step up to the stand with his lawyer. Hands cuffed in front of him, Rowland asked if he could make a statement.

"That's up to your attorney," Crane replied.

Rowland and Hobbs conferred.

"I'm obviously very sorry this had happened," Rowland began. "I should have received medical treatment by a qualified person, but I didn't realize the severity of it."

He brought up the Celexa and the delirium it can cause.

"I loved my wife," he said. "We had a good life."

Rowland then outlined the three times in his life he'd been scared. The first was the day Betty had a stroke. The second was the day she had a seizure.

"And today's the third day," he said. "I'm — I'm sorry that it happened. I couldn't have done it if I had been in my right mind."

Crane read the sentence. Hearing no legal cause why judgment and sentence should not now be pronounced upon you...

Seven years, with a "suspended exposition of sentence," and five years probation. As long as he stays clean for five years and successfully completes the terms of his probation, Rowland never has to report to prison. If he has a brush with the law, he could be on the hook for the full sentence. But Rowland is now 89 years old.

Crane's decision meant he'd be released that afternoon.

But before adjourning the court, he addressed Rowland directly.

"I do believe you loved your wife," he said, and then added, "I never know whether I'm doing the right thing up here or not."

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