STEWARTSTOWN, PA. -- After hearing testimony about the extreme pain suffered by a former Baltimore County woman who died covered with deep bedsores, a Pennsylvania judge ruled yesterday that the case against her son and his wife, who have been charged with first-degree murder in her death, should move to trial.
William Donohue, 72, and Frances Donohue, 60, were arrested in March and charged with murder in the May 2004 death of his mother, Bernadette Leiben, 87.
At a preliminary hearing yesterday, prosecutors presented evidence showing that Leiben apparently did not receive medical care after she and the Donohues moved from the Jacksonville area of Baltimore County to a farmhouse just over the Pennsylvania border nearly a year before she died.
"Here we have an individual who was taken from her residence in Baltimore ... placed in a room with an open window with no screen in York County and left there to die, to die a painful death," said York County Assistant District Attorney Tim Barker.
Attorneys for the Donohues asked that the case be dismissed, saying that prosecutors had not shown sufficient evidence to prove that the couple intended to kill Leiben or acted with malice.
"It may have been neglect, but it doesn't rise to the level of criminal homicide," said Richard Robinson, a lawyer representing William Donohue.
But York County Magisterial District Justice John Olwert, who presided over the small courtroom in Stewartstown, said that the trial should proceed and set an arraignment for July 27.
"Given the totality of the evidence and the testimony provided here today, I do find there is a prima facie case," he said.
Leiben died from sepsis, an acute bodily infection, in association with serious infections of the kidneys, esophagus and spleen, as well as the bed sores, testified Dr. Saralee Funke, the medical examiner who performed the autopsy.
She had been treated for a kidney infection at Greater Baltimore Medical Center in 2002, then released to Brightwood extended care center in Lutherville.
The Baltimore County Department of Social Services monitored her situation until 2003, when the Donohues moved and refused to disclose their new location, Pennsylvania State Police Cpl. Jeffrey Rineer testified.
When authorities were called to the home May 20, 2004, Leiben apparently had not been dead for long because rigor mortis had not set in, paramedic Laura Taylor testified.
Gangrenous patches on Leiben's shoulder, knee and heel were so deep that her bone and muscle were exposed, Funke said.
The death of the flesh on these areas would cause "exquisite pain," she said.
Maggots were found in Leiben's clothes, on her body and in several of her deep wounds, Funke said.
An unknown chemical had eaten away the skin on Leiben's back, shoulder and side at the time of her death, she said, adding that she did not test the chemical. Barker declined to provide more information about the chemical.
Leiben's fingernails were unclean, her toenails unclipped and some of the pads on her bed, which was not covered by sheets, were soaked with blood and bodily fluids, Funke said.
A great deal of dirt and debris had settled in Leiben's navel, Funke said, adding that in the about 4,000 autopsies which she has performed "I've never seen anything quite as bad as that."
All of Leiben's medical problems could have been treated, Funke said, adding: "None of them by themselves would imply or suggest that death was imminent."
Police documents indicate that witnesses told investigators that Leiben had feared that the Donohues were trying to take control of her property and finances.
The couple, being held without bail, shuffled into the courtroom wearing orange jumpsuits, handcuffs, leg irons and chains around their waists.
William Donohue, who is balding with white hair, kept his head bowed for much of the testimony. Frances Donohue whispered frequently to her lawyer and nodded her head "yes" or "no" as the state's witnesses testified.
Defense attorneys did not call any witnesses, which Robinson said was typical for the type of hearing held yesterday.
After the hearing, as the couple were led away, Frances Donohue said to her husband: "It's OK, we haven't presented our evidence yet."