The sentencing Friday of a man convicted of killing his elderly father by neglect shows that the local criminal-justice system still has a lot to learn about the crime of elder abuse.
The case of Timothy D. Harrell, 45, who was sentenced Friday to three years of probation in the death of his father, Henry Harrell, involved hundreds of pages of medical records that took on different shades as the case progressed. A key fact prosecutors learned well after filing charges was that Henry Harrell likely didn't have deep, infected bedsores for as long a period of time as one expert witness had told them.
"One thing we learned ... is that medicine, like law, is not an exact science," Assistant Dist. Atty. Dave Zabel said. "These wounds were not necessarily open and festering as depicted in the pictures that this court originally saw."
Late last year Judge Michael Malone ordered Timothy Harrell's wife, Berdella Harrell, to serve a jail sentence after being convicted of misdemeanor elder abuse. But Malone said Friday that he realized there was "less culpability" on her part than he initially thought -- and he turned down prosecutors' request to send Timothy Harrell to jail for 60 days of "shock time."
Before Henry Harrell died in November 2002 at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, he lived with Timothy and Berdella Harrell at Hampton Court Apartments, 1704 W. 24th St., where Timothy was a maintenance worker.
Henry Harrell's age is in dispute. His family members say he was 84; prosecutors say he was 78 or 76.
'They did nothing'
In fall 2001, Henry Harrell began to show signs of dementia when he wandered from a work site and wound up in Ottawa. The state's department of Social and Rehabilitation Services investigated and recommended that Henry Harrell be placed in a nursing home, but the Harrells turned that plan down.
SRS officials said they couldn't legally do anything after that, but defense attorney Greg Robinson suggested that wasn't true.
"They could have done a lot of things, but they did nothing," he said.
As Henry Harrell's mental condition worsened and he lost weight, Timothy -- whose IQ of 64 classifies him as mentally retarded -- didn't follow through on doctors' appointments and didn't seek more help from SRS. Prosecutor Zabel said that these and other "egregious" omissions made him culpable in the death.
But defense attorneys argued that Henry Harrell didn't like to visit doctors and didn't want to enter a nursing home. When his father developed bedsores, Timothy Harrell tried to treat them with over-the-counter ointment.
"I loved my father, and I never meant for nothing to happen to him," he said in court.
Defense attorneys also argued that the reason Henry Harrell died was that doctors at the hospital decided to stop aggressive medical treatment. They questioned whether any charges would have been filed had the same situation arisen in a nursing home.
"This case, in my opinion, is more of a negligence case, a malpractice case with criminal penalties," Robinson said.
Zabel alleged that, based on some of the Harrells' statements to investigators, he thought one reason they didn't put Henry Harrell in a nursing home was that they worried they would lose his Social Security check.
But Timothy Harrell testified he thought it would be cruel to put his father in a nursing home, and defense attorney Alice White said she found the allegation about the Social Security check "appalling." She said the family was worried that it wouldn't be able to afford the nursing-home care.
"They didn't understand they wouldn't have to pay for it," she said.
Timothy Harrell initially was charged with second-degree murder, but to avoid trial he pleaded guilty last month to the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter. He entered an Alford plea, which means he maintained his innocence but admitted there might have been enough evidence to convict him.
As a condition of probation, Malone ordered Harrell not to take care of any dependent adults or infant children.
"I feel bad about what's happened, and I'll do whatever you ask me," Harrell said.