Ex-nursing aide gets 10 years in patient's death

March 28, 1995|By Darren M. Allen | Darren M. Allen,Sun Staff Writer

Michael Paul Griffith, who told police he suffocated a 94-year-old nursing home patient because he couldn't stand to see her suffer any longer, was convicted yesterday of second-degree murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Griffith, a former nursing assistant at the Westminster Nursing and Convalescent Center, had been charged with first-degree murder in the Dec. 29, 1993, death of Carrie Marie Ecker, a 15-year patient there.

As part of a plea deal, Griffith entered an Alford plea to second-degree murder yesterday. In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him if the case were presented to a jury.

If Griffith had been convicted of first-degree murder, prosecutors could have sought a prison sentence of life without parole. That charge was dropped in the plea bargain.

"I'd like to apologize to Miss Ecker's family," Griffith said after Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. convicted him. "I'm guilty of a lot of poor judgment. I cared about these patients out there. I wouldn't do anything to hurt them."

Griffith, 32, had been a nursing assistant at the center for about a month before he entered Mrs. Ecker's room and suffocated her with a pillow while she sat in a wheelchair. She died after about three minutes, according to a statement of facts read by Howard County Assistant State's Attorney Joseph A. Murtha, who prosecuted the case because Griffith's former lawyer from the public defender's office is now a Carroll County prosecutor.

At the time of her death, doctors ruled that Mrs. Ecker had died of natural causes, and she was buried a few days later.

But on Feb. 25, 1994, Griffith walked into the Westminster state police barracks and said he wanted to talk to someone about helping a nursing home patient die. For an hour, he described how he killed Mrs. Ecker.

Police released him, and about an hour later he was arrested on drunken driving charges. According to the statement read by Mr. Murtha, Griffith told the Westminster police officer who stopped him, "I won't be needing my license any longer. I will probably be going to jail for a long time. . . . I kind of helped someone pass on.

"I used to work out at the Westminster Nursing Home . . . and there was a person out there that was in real bad shape, I couldn't stand seeing her that way, so I helped her get out."

The victim's body was exhumed in March 1994 for an autopsy, and a state medical examiner ruled her death a homicide. Griffith was arrested June 19 and has been incarcerated since.

Yesterday's plea agreement satisfied Mrs. Ecker's family, who said the hardest part of her death was having to take her body from its place of rest.

"We're sorry all around," said Carrie Fleming, Mrs. Ecker's niece. "We're sorry for what happened; we're sorry for him as well. I hope he gets some help. This hurts us terribly."

Mrs. Ecker's body would have remained untouched and police would not have begun their criminal investigation had it not been for Griffith's compulsion to tell the police what he did, Judge Burns said during yesterday's plea hearing.

Mrs. Ecker was suffering great physical pain and, according to Mr. Murtha, would tell anyone who would listen that she wanted to die or to go home. But she never told Griffith to kill her, Mr. Murtha said.

"This was a difficult case, with a just result," the prosecutor said. "Someone's life was taken, even if it was because someone's motivation was to relieve someone from a living misery. . . . No one ever said, 'I want to die. Help me die.' "

Griffith, an 11th-grade dropout who once played varsity football for Franklin High School in Reisterstown, has been diagnosed as a manic depressive, said his attorney, Howard County Assistant Public Defender Richard Bernhardt.

"This is not a person who stalks the streets," Mr. Bernhardt told Judge Burns. "The commission of a violent act would be out of the ordinary for him."

Griffith, the youngest of five children, would endure cycles of happiness followed by bouts of pathological lying and then depression, Mr. Bernhardt said.

Griffith has been married three times. Each marriage lasted only about a year.

He has been committed to psychiatric hospitals more than a dozen times since the 1980s and has had minor brushes with the law.

Pauline Seward, Griffith's mother, said yesterday that her son has been seeking help his entire life. She said she doesn't believe her son killed Mrs. Ecker but that she couldn't explain why he would confess to the crime.

"He really did it this time," Mrs. Seward said. "All I hope, with all my heart and soul, is that he will get the help he so desperately needs."

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