In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made a proclamation recognizing November as National Alzheimer’s Disease Month. At the time he made this proclamation, it was estimated that 1.5 to 2.5 million citizens were affected in the United States alone. Now 40 years later, we know so much more about Alzheimer’s and the associated related dementias, but despite our advances in medicine and our efforts to raise awareness, millions are still affected, and there is no cure. Alzheimer’s, those who suffer this horrific disease, and those who care for them, are part of the fabric of our community. As many of you know, Alzheimer’s has also been a part of the fabric of my family for my whole life.
My maternal grandfather had Alzheimer’s and died when I was in third grade. I remember vividly when my parents told me, and I have vivid memories of seeing and visiting him. To me, nothing was wrong with grandpa, and that was a blissful place to be as a child. I am sad to also say that on Oct. 19, God called my mother to her eternal home after her battle with Alzheimer’s — and what a warrior she was. Now my daughter, also in third grade, has lost her grandmother to this horrific disease and undoubtedly has memories similar to mine.
In 1982, my mother and my father chose me and adopted me the day I was born. My mom rarely talked about the adoption process, but I know she had all but given up hope at being a mother until my parents got the call literally right before I was about to be born. I know that my birth parents were 16 years old, and while I am obviously thankful to be alive, I am so thankful to my birth parents for choosing life and also giving my mom the opportunity to be my mom because she was the absolute best (my dad is pretty awesome, too, but this article isn’t about him — sorry dad). As I look back on our 41 years together, I knew then and still know now how much she loved me, and it was an honor to walk alongside her, until the very end, as Alzheimer’s stole her away from us.
I’m so thankful for our memories together. I’m also so thankful now that my mom literally kept everything, every memento from her life (and mine), and she wrote so many notes on everything. On the books she gave me, on the back of every picture, in emails. These are treasures to me, and I get to share these treasures with my daughter, who doesn’t have a lot of memories of Nana before she was sick. Just the other night we held Nana’s wedding rings and talked about how this year, Nana and Pop Pop (my mom and dad) would have celebrated 48 years of marriage.
When my dad and I could no longer care for my mom the way she needed to be cared for medically, she lived in a care center. Don’t get me started on how heart breaking that whole process is — but I am thankful for those who helped her, and I am equally thankful for the other families that I met there, but I never want to go back there at all!
When I would go visit my mom, I couldn’t help but think about Susan Gwynne, a case that was prosecuted by our office in 2016. This case began before my tenure as county prosecutor, but continued through the appeals process until last week where the Ohio Supreme Court issued an opinion upholding the trial court’s decision — something we have been fighting for for many years.
By way of background, for eight years, Gwynne stole personal items, mementos, from senior citizens in care centers and ultimately, she pled guilty to 46 criminal charges related to her crime spree. She then appealed her sentence when the trial court sentenced her to a lengthy, deserved, and legally justified prison term. During her appeals process, the court of appeals reversed her sentence, essentially finding that the trial court’s sentence was too long. My office appealed this decision because the court of appeals did not find any legal error in the trial court’s sentencing. After more back and forth in the courts, the Supreme Court finally agreed that the original sentence would stand.
Quite clearly, Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy wrote that power to legislate rests solely with our legislature — and not our courts. Trials courts are confined to imposing sentences they are authorized to do so by statute; and courts of appeals are confined to reviewing sentences only so much as to see if a legal error was made. In the case of Gwynne, the trial court imposed a sentence authorized by law, and the record supported the sentence it imposed. In other words, Gwynne’s original sentence was upheld by the Ohio Supreme Court, and she is serving her 65-year prison sentence.
Now, this decision is a victory for criminal justice professionals like me and defense attorneys (although they probably wouldn’t admit it). Unless there is a clear legal error, parties to criminal justice cases (like victims and defendants) can rest knowing that a court of appeals can’t substitute its own judgment for a criminal sentence, months, if not years, after the original sentence was imposed.
Our victory in the court of law will never bring back the personal items Gwynne stole from the victims and their families. The principle of our fight goes far beyond material possessions: Gwynne stole so much more from her victims — memories, mementos, piece of mind, future connection with their sons and daughters as the victims could’ve handed down their wedding bands, etc. She took advantage of elderly victims and preyed upon them, and now she is rightfully serving a just prison sentence.
I am way over my word count for this month, and if you got this far, thanks for reading. I love seeing all of you in our community, and I love hearing from you that read my column. I have one ask of you though this month! Spread love and thanks — and if you know someone with Alzheimer’s or a caregiver — check in with them; let them know how very special they are and that they are loved.
Melissa A. Schiffel is the Delaware County prosecutor.