At age 91, Marcelle Martin is perhaps the oldest person in California to be accused of elder abuse. Making her case more singular, Martin, a retired linguist born in France, is all but deaf, all but blind, weighs less than 100 pounds, and at 4’11” has a hard time peering over the podium in Judge Brian Hill’s courtroom.
Martha Bourbon, her 71-year-old accuser, however, has no such difficulties and last Thursday delivered some powerful, tearful testimony from that podium describing in detail how Martin had clubbed her repeatedly over the head with her cane on March 14, had threatened her life, and was grooming fellow residents at Carpinteria’s Shephard Place Apartments — where until recently Bourbon and Martin had been downstairs neighbors — to do similarly. (Martin was evicted in July). Bourbon accused Martin of making racist comments against Mexicans and blacks, presumably because Martin thought Bourbon was Mexican and because her grandson was half-black. In previous statements, Bourbon had also accused Martin of scandalizing her grandson by sunbathing either completely naked, partially naked, or by walking around in underwear, draped only in sandwich boards.
Martin’s attorney, Jess McHarrie of the Public Defender’s Office, countered that she had four witnesses prepared to testify it was Bourbon who had stalked and harassed Martin, not the other way around. One of those witnesses, McHarrie threatened, would testify that Santa Barbara Sheriffs deputies had tossed Martin into the back of a cruiser like a “rag doll” on the night of her arrest. (Sheriff’s spokesperson Kelly Hoover denied any excessive force was involved, insisting deputies used the utmost care and courtesy in dealing with Martin.) McHarrie insisted her client had done no wrong and she would not accept any prosecution deals.
Martin said of the incident in a recent interview that Bourbon had tried to yank her cane away, and when she yanked back, Bourbon fell. She said also that Bourbon frequently called her such names as “French whore.”
In a courthouse that typically sees less action than the outfield during a no-hitter baseball game, this constituted high drama. But by Monday morning, Judge Hill had had enough. Over the objections of county prosecutors, Hill tossed the charges, concluding that jurors “would scoff” at the prosecution’s case. Assistant District Attorney John Savrnoch took exception afterward. “Any statement about what jurors would do is opinion, not fact,” he said. “I do not agree with the court’s statement.” He could understand interest in the case given Martin’s age, he said, but added, “We were more concerned about a 71-year-old victim who’d been traumatized.”
On questions of fact and fiction, Martin’s defense attorney has been quick to accuse her client’s accuser of telling outright lies. But what carried the day for the defense was medical evidence, recorded six months before last March’s alleged assault, indicating that Martin might be approaching the foothills of dementia. A doctor at Cottage Hospital described Martin, who at the time had just suffered “a catastrophic” fall, as being “gravely disabled.” She wondered in medical charts whether Martin could care for herself and strongly suggesting that Martin — known to be acerbic and abrasive — might benefit from a court-ordered conservatorship.
“The right thing happened, but it took a lot of elbow grease to get there” said McHarrie. It had been 137 days since charges were first filed, she noted. In that time, she said, there’d been five-to-six court appearances. “It shouldn’t have been so difficult.” Her boss, Public Defender Tracy Macuga was less direct. “This isn’t about pointing the finger at the Sheriff or the DA or the Adult Protective Services,” she said. “It’s about gaps in the system and how we go about dealing with people who are gravely disabled.”
Macuga acknowledged that Martin could be difficult. “People don’t like to deal with difficult people,” she said. It’s more than that, however. In Santa Barbara County, law enforcement is not allowed to make an involuntary hold determination for people who might pose a threat to themselves or others. Santa Barbara is the only county in the state that doesn’t allow law enforcement to do so.
Savrnoch stated that prosecutors only got documentation about Martin being “gravely disabled” in the last few days. “We’ve been dealing in a universe of incomplete information,” he said. McHarrie acknowledged that she failed to include one page of medical reports in the filings she submitted to the District Attorney, citing a copying error. But other documents she supplied — some as early as June 20th — contained that information.
In either case, Marcelle Marin is no longer the oldest person in the state to be facing elder abuse charges.