Murder-by-abuse case requires state to prove Wilks was a dependent personWas Sharon Wilks a helpless woman left to die by two people who were supposed to be her caregivers, or an abrasive, demanding person who wrecked her health with years of substance abuse and refused to take any responsibility for her own well-being?
A 12-person jury will be asked to decide in the trial of Theresa Beverage and Nicole Harris, both accused of murder by abuse in the death of Wilks. The trial kicked off Tuesday in Clatsop County Circuit Court before Judge Phil Nelson.
Wilks died in February 2004 while living with Beverage and Harris at their Hilltop Apartments unit on Niagara Avenue. Her body, strapped into her motorized wheelchair, was found at the bottom of an embankment behind the apartment complex on Feb. 28.
Beverage, 31, and Harris, 34, are charged with murder by abuse, abuse of a corpse, first-degree criminal mistreatment and hindering prosecution. They are accused of neglecting Wilks during the month and a half she lived with them, then, after her death, dumping her body in the ravine. They face a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison if convicted of the murder-by-abuse charge.
"Sharon Wilks died because she was left to rot in bed by these two women who were supposed to care for her," District Attorney Josh Marquis told the jury in his opening statement.
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Using a laser pointer, Astoria Police Officer Ben Ward points to a part of a projected photograph showing where Wilks' body and motorized wheelchair are in the scene.The murder-by-abuse charge requires the state to show that Wilks was a dependent person and that Beverage and Harris served as her caregivers, Marquis said.
Wilks used an electric wheelchair, the result of a spinal infection in 2002 that left her paralyzed from the chest down, and required assistance for the most basic needs, including getting to and from bed and dressing her chronic bedsores, Marquis said. "She needed help, she needed a lot of help," he said.
Wilks was brought to Columbia Memorial Hospital in early December 2003 for treatment of dehydration. While there she met Beverage, who told her she and Harris had a spare bedroom at the Hilltop Apartments unit where Wilks could live. On Dec. 24, Wilks moved in with the pair.
During the first few weeks, the two properly cared for Wilks, even arranging a hospital visit in mid-January when one of her bedsores required treatment, Marquis said.
But the autopsy conducted on Wilks' body shows a shocking decline between the time she was last seen by her physician in January and her death just a month later, Marquis said. She had lost as much as 40 pounds, was dehydrated and had little or no trace of the many medications she had been prescribed.
But attorney Randall Vogt, representing Theresa Beverage, disputed his client's role as Wilks' caregiver, arguing that Wilks was simply a roommate of the two women.
More importantly, Vogt said, Wilks suffered from a host of ailments, including heart disease, clogged arteries, emphysema and a urinary tract infection, many stemming from years of drinking, smoking and drug abuse. She suffered from depression, and was combative with her doctors and caregivers, refusing to follow basic instructions, including how to prevent bedsores.
The state medical examiner listed Wilks' likely cause of death as arterial sclerotic heart disease, Vogt said.
"Sharon Wilks' body had been used as a trash pit for her entire adolescent and adult life," he said. "The death of Sharon Wilks was caused by Sharon Wilks."
Harris' attorney, Glenn Faber, also pointed to Wilks' poor health and questioned whether she qualified as a dependent person. But he emphasized that it was Beverage, not Harris, who took the lead in caring for the invalid women while she lived with the pair.
It was Beverage who originally arranged to have Wilks come live with the pair, and it was she who handled almost all the tasks involved with Wilks' care once she moved in, Faber said. Harris filled out some forms to be designated an official caregiver by the state, but did so only because of Beverage's criminal record, which included some arrest warrants, he said.
Harris also had no role in disposing of Wilks' body when the woman was discovered dead in her bedroom around Feb. 14, Faber said.
"She told Ms. Beverage 'I don't want to get involved, it's your call, do whatever you want to do,'" he said.
Witnesses testifying Tuesday included Emily Arthur, a young AmeriCorps volunteer who lived in the next-door apartment, and who spoke of hearing moaning coming from Beverage and Harris' unit that ended a day or two before Wilks' death. Arthur said Beverage told her one day that the sounds were from an Alzheimer's patient she and Harris were caring for.
Arthur also testified that she noticed a strong smell in one of her apartment's bedrooms, the one next to Wilks' room, that eventually drove her to stuff blankets under the door to block the odor.
Arthur testified that on Feb. 22 she saw what she thought was a massage table lying at the bottom of the embankment behind the apartments. Six days later she decided to organize a clean-up of the trash-filled ravine, and it was then that Wilks' body was found, still strapped into her wheelchair.
The prosecution also played a tape of a two phone calls between Beverage and Astoria Police Officer Paul Gillum, who spoke after the discovery of Wilks' body. Beverage first told Gillum she was in Washington, then said she could be at her apartment in five minutes to speak with police. In fact, she and Harris were inside the apartment the entire time, but refused to answer knocks on the door from police.