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Sister found guilty in starvation death of her brother wants to withdraw guilty plea, obtain lighter sentence

by | Nov 7, 2014


By Dave Andrusko

Joan Gensiak (Michael J. Mullen / Staff Photographer, Times Tribune of Scranton)

Joan Gensiak (Michael J. Mullen / Staff Photographer, Times Tribune of Scranton)

Last week the community of Taylor, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania, could be forgiven if residents there expected some kind of closure in the hideous starvation death of Robert Gensiak.

Lackawanna County Judge Margaret Bisignani Moyle sentenced Robert’s mother, Susan Gensiak, to 10-20 years in state prison; Robert’s sister Joan Gensiak, to six to 15 years in state prison; and the younger sister, Rebekah Gensiak, to six to 23 months in Lackawanna County Prison.

For what? For what Lackawanna County District Attorney Andy Jarbola described back in June 2013 as “the worst case of neglect I’ve seen the last 26 years. …This family, the mother and two sisters, basically let this young man rot to death.”

The description is no exaggeration. The autopsy photos of Mr. Gensiak, who had Down syndrome, were so graphic that only a few people have seen them. The local paper chose not to publish them “as a matter of taste.”

Mr. Gensiak, 32, “was confined to a child-sized bed soiled with human waste and his emaciated frame was pockmarked with oozing open sores,” Joseph Kohut of the Times-Tribune of Scranton reported. “He had a mouth full of rotten teeth that probably gave him agony when he tried to eat, Assistant District Attorney Suzanne Tierney said.” He weighed 69 pounds at his death.

But Joan Gensiak has other plans, and closure is not one of them, according to Peter Cameron of the Times-Tribune. Ms. Gensiak wants to withdraw her guilty plea. “Joan Gensiak wants what her sister got.”

Her attorney, Matthew Comerford, has filed a petition with Judge Moyle. Cameron explains that Comerford “argued that prosecutors misrepresented the plea deal and sentencing arrangement. Her attorney, pointed to the more lenient sentence her sister received.”

What follows is one of the most memorable lines I can ever recall reading. According to the petition, the disparity in jail time between Joan and Rebekah Gensiak “shocks the conscious and has absolutely no rational basis in fact.”

Starving their brother to the point where in spots the open sores were so extreme that Mr. Gensiak’s bone was visible—not so shocking. Telling the police the day after he died (in response to how his health had so badly deteriorated) that they were “concern[ed] that if they placed Mr. Gensiak in a personal care facility, the financial support they received from his Social Security benefits would dry up”—what could be more rational than that?

And why would anyone be upset (as Kohut explained in his story) “Before the end of the interview, investigators said Mr. Gensiak’s mother asked if she would still receive her son’s Social Security check even though he died”?

Assistant District Attorney Suzanne Tierney was having none of that. Cameron writes that in her written response, Tierney accused Comerford of being “completely disingenuous and completely misrepresents” discussions between the court and the two sides of the legal fight.

For example, Rebekah Gensiak testified for the prosecution and pleaded guilty to only one charge. Joan Gensiak pleaded to two.

Comerford also wrote in the petition that Joan Gensiak is “extremely low functioning in terms of intelligence” and needed a psychological examination for the court to fully understand her mental condition.

Tierney fired back that Comerford never even tried to get an evaluation before the plea deal. Cameron ends his story

She reminded the defense attorney that he said his client “intellectually understands what’s going on” at the guilty plea. Ms. Tierney also argued that the defendant is not as “extremely low functioning in terms of intelligence as defense counsel would like you to believe,” noting Joan Gensiak was enrolled at the McCann School of Business & Technology and had earned a grade point average of 2.75 and above.

“At best, this is an excuse to withdraw a guilty plea because defendant is unhappy with the sentence imposed,” she wrote.

The judge has not yet ruled on the petition.

Categories: Crime