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Essex woman goes on trial today on murder charge in invalid's death; Defendant accused of abuse, neglect of vulnerable adult


When Patricia Thomas goes on trial today, Baltimore County prosecutors hope to convince a judge that she intentionally killed Marion V. Cusimano, an elderly invalid whose body lay for more than a year in Thomas' home in Essex.

Thomas, 51, is charged with first-degree murder, abuse and neglect of a vulnerable adult and two counts of theft in the wake of Cusimano's death, from what the state medical examiner described as "neglect and malnutrition."

The charges highlight what advocates for the elderly say is a growing problem -- abuse of the elderly.

Nationwide, reports of abuse of the elderly have increased dramatically in the past decade, and murder trials of alleged abusers are "rare, but not unheard of," said Lori Stiegel, with the American Bar Association's commission on legal problems of the elderly.

In Baltimore County, Thomas' case recalls the murder-abuse trial last year in the death of Rita Denise Fisher, 9, whose battered, emaciated body became a symbol of child abuse gone unchecked.

The murder trial of Rita's mother, sister and her sister's boyfriend -- in which all three were convicted -- put the county's Department of Social Services under scrutiny for not removing Rita and her sister, Georgia, from their Pikesville home.

Thomas' trial in Baltimore County Circuit Court could put the social services agency under similar examination.

Complaints that Cusimano was being financially exploited were investigated by social workers but dismissed after she denied anyone was taking advantage of her.

Police discovered Cusimano's decayed body under a blanket in Thomas' home in April after Thomas' husband, Ronald G. Thomas, told police he found the body while vacu- uming the 66-year-old woman's bedroom.

He told police neither he nor his wife had spoken to the elderly woman since June, despite a foul odor coming from her room.

He has not been charged.

Cusimano had lived with the couple since 1993 after the woman, who suffered from emphysema and multiple sclerosis, left Ivy Hall Geriatric and Rehabilitation Center.

It was there she had met Patricia Thomas, an aide who was later fired for accepting gifts and borrowing money from Cusimano in violation of the nursing home's policies.

Court records show prosecutors Katie Curran O'Malley and James O'C. Gentry Jr. plan to call Thomas' daughter Jeanetta Tolson -- who lived in the home on Homberg Avenue -- to testify against her mother.

The prosecution and the defense are expected to introduce reports by forensic pathologists concerning Cusimano's cause of death.

Defense attorney Stephen L. Miles will represent Thomas, who has chosen not to be judged by a jury.

Circuit Judge John G. Turnbull II will hear the case, which is expected to last two to three days.

Pub Date: 2/01/99

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