SANTA ANA — An elderly woman who set her terminally ill husband on fire after he ate one of her candy bars pleaded guilty Thursday to felony elder abuse and was sentenced to a year in jail and five years' probation.
June Carter, 69, of Santa Ana, who had faced charges of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon, could be released from the Central Women's Jail by mid-December because of credit for time served since her arrest April 17.
But under the plea agreement approved by Municipal Judge Richard W. Stanford Jr., Carter won't be able to see her still-hospitalized husband, Paul F. Carter Jr., until her release, and then only with the approval of her probation officer and under the supervision of a third party, Deputy Dist. Atty. Rosanne Froeberg said.
"She's 69 years old--we felt a year in custody was sufficient punishment for her," Froeberg said. "And five years of strictly supervised probation, we felt, was one of the safest ways of protecting the victim and still acceding to his wishes. . . . Mr. Carter made it very clear to all of us that he does want to have a relationship with his wife."
Paul Carter, 62, remains hospitalized in Santa Ana, where he is recuperating from second- and third-degree burns suffered when his wife flung a small amount of rubbing alcohol on him and a lighted match. He already had been diagnosed as having a rare form of breast cancer that had spread to his lungs and bones and was inoperable.
Deputy Public Defender Stephen Biskar, who called his client a victim of "caretaker burnout" and someone who never intended to cause such serious injury to her husband, said he agreed to the plea "not entirely willingly."
"I felt that she had been punished enough and, at 69, I didn't think keeping her in jail was really the answer to her situation--particularly with her husband willing to see her and wanting to see her again," Biskar said.
But with June Carter fretting about a preliminary hearing next week and a subsequent trial that would be months away, Biskar said they agreed to plead guilty to the lesser charge.
"I certainly would have liked to see her released today," he said. "But this gives her the certainty of a sentence and relieves her mind of some of the anxiety of what's going to happen to her."
Carter's case shed a spotlight on the strains faced by people who undertake the care of an incapacitated relative with little help from outside.
Carter had quit her job to care full-time for her ailing husband, to whom she has been married for 36 years.
"She was basically a 24-hour-a-day nurse," Biskar said. "For two years, she had to change him, feed him, try to bathe him. She is 4 foot, 10 inches tall and when he was healthy, he weighed about 200 pounds.
"They were living on Social Security and they were unaware of all the services that are available for people in their situation--respite care, in-home nursing.
"They regressed to almost childlike bickering, fighting over what channels to watch on TV, him sending her out to buy fast food, him throwing a burning cigarette on the bed. It just got very petty, and she was pretty isolated."
The last straw came at 5:30 p.m. on April 16, when she returned from getting the mail and discovered that Paul Carter had eaten a candy bar she had saved for herself. She grabbed a bottle of rubbing alcohol, flicked a teaspoon of it on him and threw a lighted match in his direction.
"It went whoosh, and before she realized it, he was on fire," Biskar said.
She rushed to help smother the flames with a blanket. Biskar said neither husband nor wife realized how seriously he had been burned. Paul Carter said nothing about the incident to a niece who visited an hour later.
When her husband awoke in pain at 1 a.m. that night, June Carter telephoned 911. Paul Carter told responding paramedics how he had been burned and they, in turn, summoned Santa Ana police.
Asked why he hadn't complained to anyone about the incident, Biskar said Paul Carter told police: "I didn't want to tell anybody because she's the only one who will take care of me."
Froeberg, the prosecutor, said her investigation of the events surrounding the burning led her to conclude that June Carter did not intend to kill her husband.
"I think the years of frustration and stress had built up, and it manifested itself in her trying to punish him for things he had done," Froeberg said. "Unfortunately, she chose a method that caused him great, great injury."
She urged that anyone caring for an ailing relative who is similarly stressed should contact the patient's doctor and the myriad support agencies available to assist. The Orange County Adult Protective Services office also has a hot line for people in need of immediate referral: (714) 285-1948.
June Carter, meanwhile, is feeling better, however remorseful for the injury she caused her husband, Biskar said.
"I think the stress of having to take care of him has maybe lifted a big weight off her shoulders," he said. "She was trying to do the impossible."