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88-year-old man pleads guilty in hammer attack of wife at nursing home

Rita Turkiewicz, still a resident at Garden Gate Health Care facility, misses her husband. After all, they have been married well over 60 years.

But Mrs. Turkiewicz doesn't recall that, on Sept. 9, her husband, Martin J. Turkiewicz, came to her room, put a sheet and blanket over her face, and hit her with a claw hammer, according to prosecutors. She sustained two skull fractures in what those who know the couple say may have been an attempt at a mercy killing.

"She says she misses lying in bed with her husband," District Attorney John J. Flynn said. "She's not aware of what happened."

Martin Turkiewicz, 88, pleaded guilty Thursday in Erie County Court to second-degree assault. He was initially charged with second-degree attempted murder and first-degree assault for harming his wife

Dressed in a suit and tie, with hearing aids tucked behind his glasses, he clearly answered Judge Kenneth F. Case's questions to assure he understood the proceedings.

As are all defendants entering a plea, Turkiewicz was asked if he felt in good physical and mental condition, and he replied "yes." Asked if he was under the influence of any drugs or medication, Turkiewicz replied honestly, "Well, I take medications but ..." with the judge clarifying by asking if they affected his ability to understand what was going on.

Turkiewicz's attorney Rodney O. Personius previously has said that Turkiewicz, who was his wife's main caregiver for several years, now has health problems of his own, including a heart condition and skin cancer. While he couldn't discuss specifics of the illnesses because of privacy rules, the district attorney said that health issues did play a part in his decision to offer the plea to the lesser offense.

"I'm being very merciful here in allowing him to plea to assault," Flynn said. "I don't want him to die in jail."

Flynn, however, said he will seek some jail time for what was a very violent crime.

"I have compassion, but he took a hammer to her head. I can't get over that fact," Flynn said. "We cannot allow an individual to decide on his or her own that it's better for a spouse to die and end his or her life. If I let him walk scot-free, what kind of precedent am I setting? Because someone has dementia, or cancer, or something – do you have any idea how many couples in Erie County are going through this?"

And, according to his attorney, Turkiewicz did make that decision when his 86-year-old wife was injured and had to go back into a nursing facility.

Personius said that after Turkiewicz was arrested he told him, "I just wanted to end it for her. I felt so sorry for her. She suffered.”

The public response to the incident was one of both shock and sympathy, and the couple's adult children have been supportive of their father since his arrest. He is free on bail on the condition that he be supervised by his daughter. The one concern Turkiewicz had during his plea was whether others could be added as custodial agents, so the daughter, who lives out of state, could return to her family.

With the judge's permission, Assistant District Attorney Danielle D'Abate, who is prosecuting the case, and Personius will try to arrange other approved supervision.

Case kept in place a stay-away order that does not allow Turkiewicz to visit his wife. It does include exceptions for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when the two can visit as long as there is a third person present who is not a family member.

D'Abate also said similar rules were a a condition of the plea, that for the next five years Turkiewicz and his wife only be allowed to have contact if another person, not a relative, is with them.

Flynn said after court that the reason for the restriction is obvious: "I don't want him to do this again."

Case did not agree to any sentencing range in accepting the plea, saying he wanted to hear from all relevant parties before making a decision. He made sure Turkiewicz understood that, "under normal circumstances," he could receive anywhere between 2 and 7 years in prison, but that a shorter local jail sentence or probation also are options.

Sentencing was set for Feb. 8.

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