Grandmother to Plead Guilty To Involuntary Manslaughter;Md. Girl’s Overdose a Mistake, Lawyer Says

A Bethesda woman accused of murdering her severely disabled 4-year-old granddaughter with an overdose of sleeping pills has agreed to plead guilty to a lesser offense, avoiding a trial that was to have begun yesterday, attorneys in the case said.

The woman, Barbara Ann Hemsley, 67, was caring for her granddaughter March 30 in Potomac, and intended to give the girl her prescribed medication, according to Hemsley’s attorney, Barry Helfand. The girl, Tara Roanna Handy, suffered from cerebral palsy and other illnesses, and was almost fully paralyzed, Helfand said in an interview.

He said his client, whom he described as a heavy drinker, was intoxicated the night of March 30 and mistakenly gave the child five sleeping pills, called Dalmane, that had been prescribed for the girl’s father, who was on vacation with his wife at the time.

“It was a tragic, tragic accident,” Helfand said.

He said Hemsley, who could have been sentenced to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder and child abuse, will plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office said the original charges will be dropped.

Hemsley, the girl’s maternal grandmother, was unavailable for comment.

“It’s been such a wrenching experience for my whole family,” said the child’s father, Howard Handy, an economist for the International Monetary Fund. He referred questions about the plea bargain to his attorney, Lon Babby.

“The only thing that the family will have to say is that they strongly believe their daughter’s death was a tragic accident, and they will be relieved to have this matter put behind them,” Babby said.

Assistant State’s Attorney Barry Hamilton, who was to have prosecuted Hemsley, confirmed the plea bargain yesterday but declined to discuss it in detail. Under the agreement, Hemsley will plead guilty before Circuit Court Judge John J. Mitchell at a hearing that has yet to be scheduled.

Investigators said Hemsley, of Silver Lake Drive in Bethesda, was baby-sitting with Tara in the girl’s home on Hackmore Drive in Potomac while the parents were in Hawaii. A housekeeper was helping Hemsley.

Helfand said that on March 30 his client watched the child during the day, then “started drinking” in the early evening, after the housekeeper had taken charge of the girl. At some point,Helfand said, the child began “making noises,” an indication that she needed medication.

He said the girl’s medication was in capsule form, as was the Dalmane that belonged to the child’s father. Hemsley, because she was drunk, picked up the wrong medicine container, broke open five capsules and dabbed the contents of each onto the girl’s tongue, according to Helfand. He said the dosage caused the child’s respiratory system to shut down.

Rescue workers arrived about 9 p.m. and found the child “unresponsive in an upstairs bedroom,” according to the charging document in Hemsley’s court file. Hemsley “was screaming that she had killed the child by giving her some pills to stop her from crying,” according to the document.

Helfand described his client as grief-stricken and said she was hospitalized for psychiatric treatment.

Hamilton declined to say whether he plans to recommend imprisonment for Hemsley. But Helfand said he will ask Judge Mitchell to impose “probation before judgment,” which would result in the expunction of Hemsley’s court record if she completed a period of probation.

At the sentencing hearing, “We’re going to call the doctor who examined the grandmother at Suburban Hospital, and he’s going to testify that she didn’t know what she was doing,” Helfand said. “And we’re going to call a group of nurses who’ll testify that she showed extreme remorse.”