A 62-year-old woman with the mental capacity of a child has pleaded guilty but mentally ill to stabbing her ex-boyfriend to death in August 2020 in the apartment they still shared at the Boston Store Place complex in downtown Erie.
The defendant, Janice Rowry, was initially charged with first-degree murder.
Her lawyer had said he planned to pursue a defense of self-defense or possibly insanity had the case gone to trial.
But a trial also would have put Rowry at risk for a conviction for first-degree murder and a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no parole.
By pleading guilty but mentally ill to third-degree murder, Rowry faces a maximum sentence of 40 years in state prison at her sentencing on Jan. 3 before Erie County Judge David Ridge, who accepted Rowry’s plea on Thursday. The deal included no sentencing recommendation from the Erie County District Attorney’s Office.
But Rowry’s plea to third-degree murder also gives Ridge wide latitude at sentencing, and he can consider her mental issues in determining how much longer Rowry should be incarcerated. She has been at the Erie County Prison since her arrest in late August 2020, and when she is sentenced she will get credit for time served ― a period that now stands at about three years and 2½ months.
Rowry’s competency, mental capacity at issue throughout case
Rowry had been scheduled to go to trial on Monday in Erie County Common Pleas Court. The plea deal ends the prosecution of a case that went on for so long partly because of Rowry’s mental issues.
A defense psychologist diagnosed her with schizophrenia and said she has the intellectual capacity of 10-year-old. Those findings prompted Ridge to order examinations to determine whether Rowry was mentally competent to stand trial.
In a ruling in 2022, for instance, Ridge said he had not made a final finding that Rowry’s “intellectual deficiency, i.e. her having the cognitive ability of a 10-year-old, is of such a nature that she would be forever incompetent to stand trial.”
After reviewing more reports, Ridge in May determined that Rowry was competent to stand trial ― that she could understand the legal proceedings and meaningfully assist in her defense.
Competency deals with a defendant’s state of mind for purposes of legal proceedings. An insanity defense ― which Rowry’s lawyer said he was contemplating at one point ― concerns a defendant’s state of mind when the crime occurred. A plea of guilty but mentally ill recognizes a defendant’s mental issues without finding that the defendant was insane, or incapable of recognizing right or wrong.
The lead prosecutor on the case, First Assistant District Attorney Jessica Reger, declined to comment on the plea. So did Rowry’s lawyer, Brian Arrowsmith. The defense and prosecution will be able to present arguments at sentencing.
‘He jumped on me so I stabbed him’
The plea of guilty but mentally ill means that Rowry was mentally ill at the time she committed the killing. The plea does not make Rowry ineligible for a prison sentence. The plea helps ensure that she will receive mental health treatment as part of her sentence.
Rowry pleaded guilty to using a 10-inch kitchen knife to fatally stab her ex-boyfriend, Jacob Carr, 42 during a dispute shortly after 12:35 a.m. on Aug. 29, 2020, in their third-floor apartment at Boston Store Place, 716 State St. The two were still living together.
Erie police responded to the stabbing on a report of a domestic dispute. When officers arrived at the apartment, Rowry told police, “He jumped on me so I stabbed him,” according to the affidavit of probable cause filed with Rowry’s criminal complaint.
Nine domestic-related calls were placed to 911 by Rowry between June and August 2020, according to testimony at Rowry’s preliminary hearing, in September 2020. None of those calls resulted in a hospital visit or charges being filed, according to testimony.
During the investigation of Carr’s death, Rowry told police Carr was intoxicated and was annoying her, police said. She said he often accused her of being with another man and refused to leave her alone, according to the affidavit of probable cause.
According to testimony at the preliminary hearing, Rowry told an Erie County dispatcher that Carr tried to hurt her and that she stabbed him.
Rowry still maintained that she acted in self-defense, based on her comments at Thursday’s plea hearing. She agreed to the plea deal after repeatedly discussing her options with Arrowsmith, her lawyer, who at one point had to explain to her the difference between pleading guilty and not guilty.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Rowry said at the hearing. “He jumped on me all the time.”
Intent discussed at length at plea hearing
Some of the confusion appeared due to the concept of intent — a concept that can be hard for non-lawyers to understand, let alone a defendant with intellectual limitations.
Intent is well defined under first-degree murder. The defendant is accused of a premeditated killing.
In the third-degree murder charge to which she pleaded guilty, Rowry admitted to acting with intent, but not with premeditation. When Arrowsmith explained that intent was an element of the plea, she responded that she did not mean to kill Carr.
Ridge throughout the hearing gave Rowry time to meet with Arrowsmith. The judge also questioned Rowry at length to make sure that she understood what she was doing.
The challenges inherent in the case — in which the defendant’s intellectual abiility is limited — became clear as soon as the plea hearing started. Ridge asked Rowry about her educational background.
“First to 10th,” Rowry said. “Special classes from first to 10th.”
Contact Ed Palattella at email@example.com. Follow him on X @ETNpalattella.
This article originally appeared on Erie Times-News: Erie woman, 62, pleads guilty but mentally ill to killing ex-boyfriend