Thursday, October 17, 2002

Death of woman won't be prosecuted

Grand jurors decide against an indictment

By Debra Jasper
and Spencer Hunt
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - No one will be prosecuted for the death of Denise Tavner, a mentally retarded Dayton woman who died of thirst two years ago.

Although a coroner ruled Ms. Tavner's death a homicide after the 44-year-old woman was found at home lying in her own urine and weighing just 85 pounds, a Montgomery County grand jury declined Wednesday to indict anyone in the case.

She was one of 12 people who died in questionable circumstances identified in an Enquirer special investigation that revealed that the state routinely fails to protect the mentally retarded.

"These are very disturbing and sad situations," said David Franceschelli, assistant prosecutor for Montgomery County. He said prosecutors couldn't overcome the fact that police didn't initially investigate Ms. Tavner's death as a crime.

Records show Ms. Tavner often showed up at a Montgomery County workshop dirty, hungry and covered with lice. After she arrived so thirsty that she drank seven glasses of water, county officials visited her home and found that she slept on an old couch in a room with dog feces on the floor.

Ohio law allows police to remove adults from their homes to protect them from injury or abuse. County officials also can remove a person who is incapacitated or has been found incompetent. But no one acted to move Ms. Tavner, who lived with relatives.

One woman who lived in the home told police Ms. Tavner was regularly beaten, wasn't bathed and had such severe lice she had cuts on her head. Another relative said Ms. Tavner would walk on her knees and try to pull soft drinks off the counter to get water. The coroner ruled she died of severe dehydration due to neglect on April 2, 2000.

Despite the accounts, Jim Knight, spokesman for the prosecutor's office, said it would be a difficult case to prosecute. "It's not like a typical case where someone was shot with a gun and this person pulled the trigger," he said. "This person died of dehydration and malnutrition."

He said police notified prosecutors of the case in the fall of 2000. They were asked to investigate further because they didn't initially investigate Ms. Tavner's death as a crime. Prosecutors went before the grand jury last week and asked jurors to decide whether a crime was committed and who, if anyone, should be indicted.

"When we have a case like this where we think there may have been a crime but we're not sure ourselves, we just present the evidence," Mr. Knight said.

Since the jury declined to issue an indictment, the case is now over unless new evidence comes to light, he said.

The Enquirer series highlighting rampant abuse in Ohio's mental retardation system, and the deaths of Ms. Tavner and others spurred the governor this year to create a crime victims' task force. The task force, studying ways to beef up prosecution of abusers, is expected to release its recommendations by the end of this year.

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