Woman found guilty in death

Caregiver convicted of manslaughter, abusing MS patient

February 05, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

The caregiver of a 66-year-old disabled woman found mummified in an Essex home last year was convicted yesterday of manslaughter by a Baltimore County judge who sharply rebuked the dead woman's friends and family -- and the Department of Social Services.

Patricia Thomas, 51, also was found guilty of two counts of felony theft and one count of abuse of a vulnerable adult in the death of Marion V. Cusimano. Thomas could receive 45 years in prison when she is sentenced in April.

In grim, often macabre testimony, witnesses described Thomas' abuse of Cusimano, a strong-willed woman victimized by advanced multiple sclerosis and her own refusal to accept help.

After Cusimano checked herself out of an Essex nursing home in 1993 and moved in with Thomas, concerned friends and family called DSS four times to complain Cusimano was being neglected and financially exploited.

Social Services investigations found no wrongdoing. In April, police found Cusimano's corpse in a first-floor bedroom, where it had decomposed for 14 months while Thomas and her family continued to live in the house.

"Don't you think the Department of Social Services had an obligation to take some action?" Judge John Grason Turnbull II asked prosecutors. "I wish they had -- we would not be here."

Turnbull also singled out Jeanetta Tolson, Thomas' 21-year-old daughter who lived in the house with her own young daughter at the time of Cusimano's death. Tolson, who testified against her mother, said that she heard Cusimano moaning for hours the night she died -- but did nothing about it.

Nor did Tolson act when fluids dripped from Cusimano's room into her room below for months and the house was permeated with a terrible odor, Turnbull said.

When the judge turned to Thomas, she listened stolidly, head down, as he announced the verdict.

"She was the primary caretaker and had a duty to the victim," Turnbull said. "The court finds the defendant's negligence played a major part in the victim's death."

Defense attorney Stephen L. Miles said he was "ecstatic" about the decision, which spared Thomas life in prison -- the mandatory sentence for the first-degree murder conviction the state sought.

"I would have pled guilty to all those charges before the case started," he said. This was not a case of murder, he said, but of negligence, indifference and greed on the part of Thomas, who cashed Cusimano's pension checks and used her credit cards.

Prosecutors Catherine C. O'Malley and James O. Gentry Jr. said yesterday that Turnbull's verdict was well-reasoned but that they had hoped for more.

"I'm still disappointed," Gentry said. "I believe that this was murder."

The case is an extreme example of the limits of government's powers in dealing with sane adults who make bad choices, said Barbara Gradet, director of Social Services for the county.

"If the law allowed us to remain involved, the outcome may have been different, and we share his [Turnbull's] frustration that we are not permitted to do so in situations like this," Gradet said yesterday.

When an adult repeatedly rebuffs offers of help from social workers, there is little the department can do, Gradet said. Social Services investigations are typically triggered by complaints -- and none were made about Cusimano after 1995, she said. If she was mentally competent -- which doctors and social workers said she was -- there was no way to force her out of the Thomas house if she wanted to stay.

"If they are found competent, our hands are tied," Gradet said. "Mrs. Cusimano was not in imminent danger or placing herself in imminent danger when we were there. Her needs were being met when we were there."

Isolation was a factor in Cusimano's death, Gradet and prosecutors said. In 1995, she received regular medical checkups, kept in touch by telephone with friends and family and had an occasional visitor at the Thomas home, although family and friends testified that it was clear that Thomas didn't want them there.

By 1996, however, the visits and calls had stopped, testimony revealed. Cusimano's telephone had been turned off, leaving her with no link to the outside world -- and ever more dependent on Thomas.

"The only way the abuse of Marion Cusimano could have occurred was with this isolation," O'Malley said in her closing argument.

Pub Date: 2/05/99

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