Grieving Grandmother Spared Prison in Girl’s Death

Barbara Ann Hemsley tried hard yesterday to make sense of her granddaughter’s death. She stood in Montgomery County Circuit Court and sought to explain how it happened, how she accidentally killed the disabled girl with sleeping pills.

All that came out were disjointed memories and sobs that made Hemsley’s shoulders heave. “Horrible . . . reckless . . . terrible . . . I loved her as much as anyone I’ve ever loved in my life.”

Then her legs gave way and the 68-year-old grandmother from Bethesda fell back into the defendant’s chair before Judge John J. Mitchell. For a moment there was quiet.

“This has indeed been a very traumatic occasion,” Mitchell said. The judge’s eyes fell on Hemsley as he passed a sentence that her attorney later called “stunning.”

Saying he was moved by Hemsley’s grief and by a litany of tragedies that have befallen her family in recent years, Mitchell disregarded a prosecutor’s call for her to be imprisoned and gave Hemsley what amounted to a pardon for involuntary manslaughter.

“I have never had a more difficult sentencing” in 17 years on the bench, Mitchell said. Noting the woman’s grief, he added: “I feel Ms. Hemsley has been sufficiently punished. I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.”

An acknowledged alcoholic, Hemsley admitted being drunk when she gave her 4-year-old granddaughter, Tara Roanna Handy of Potomac, an overdose of adult sleeping pills last March. Hemsley, who in November pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, did not realize the dose would be fatal to the child, her psychiatrist testified yesterday.

Tara suffered from cerebral palsy. Her parents, in letters to Mitchell, listed “an appalling succession” of additional tragedies that have struck the family in recent years and pleaded with the judge not to inflict another by ordering Hemsley to prison.

“There is not a shadow of doubt in my mind” that Tara’s death was an accident, wrote the father, Howard Handy, an economist. “Tara’s love for her grandmother was clear for all to see; so too was her grandmother’s love for her evident in all the things she did with Tara and for her.”

Mitchell imposed what is known as “probation before judgment,” a sentence normally reserved for first-time misdemeanor offenders. Hemsley, whose crime was punishable by up to 10 years in prison, was put on probation for 18 months and ordered to do 250 hours of community service and continue treatment for alcoholism. Her guilty plea was wiped from the record. In three years, her criminal file will be expunged.

Assistant State’s Attorney Barry Hamilton, calling it “essentially a pardon,” objected to the sentence when defense attorney Barry Helfand first proposed it to Mitchell.

“The recklessness was so extreme,” Hamilton said. Noting that Tara’s parents do not believe Hemsley deserves punishment, he added: “I know what the family has said. However, we don’t have a system of private criminal justice in this country. There has to be accountability for a child’s death.” Helfand, in asking for the sentence, conceded to Mitchell that the request was “extraordinary” in a manslaughter case. He said afterward he was “stunned” by the judge’s response.

“This is justice,” he said.

Hemsley was helping to care for Tara in Potomac last March 30 while the girl’s parents were vacationing.

She wanted to give the child her prescribed sedative but could find none in the house, according to Helfand.

Instead, while drunk, she gave the child six or seven capsules of Dalmane, a sleeping pill prescribed for Tara’s father. The dosage caused Tara’s respiratory system to shut down.

Charged with first-degree murder and child abuse, Hemsley later pleaded guilty to the lesser offense.

“She was a beautiful, happy little girl,” wrote Tara’s mother Roanna Handy, who is Hemsley’s daughter. “And while she wasn’t capable of even scratching herself, she was capable of a tremendous range of emotion. . . . She showed a great deal of love because she received a great deal of love; not only from us, her parents and her brother, but from her grandmother. Tara would cry out in joy at her grandmother’s voice.”

Tara’s brother, David, is 7.

His mother almost died delivering Tara, and can have no more children. David’s favorite babysitter died of cancer in 1986. In 1988, his other grandmother, who lived with the family, fell down stairs and died. Last March, his sister, Tara, died. Then five months ago, his favorite aunt was killed in a traffic accident.

“We loved Tara and we love her grandmother,” Roanna Handy wrote. “Spare us any more grief . . . Please don’t take David’s grandmother away.”

After Hemsley’s knees gave out from grief and she slumped into her chair, the judge turned to Hamilton. “What greater punishment can I impose?” he asked the prosecutor.