Approved for Release, 80-Year-Old Vet Fights to Get Out of Coronavirus-Infected Prison

Former U.S. Marine David Terwilliger at the Veterans Unit of the Cybulski Rehabilitation Center.
Former U.S. Marine and Navy senior petty officer David Terwilliger at the Veterans Unit of the Cybulski Rehabilitation Center, attends a group meeting on May 3, 2016 in Enfield, Connecticut. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Retired Navy Master-at-Arms First Class David Terwilliger has served his time in a Connecticut prison. The state granted community release to the 80-year-old this year after he completed nearly his entire sentence for killing his son-in-law in 2003.

But during the COVID-19 pandemic, some transfers to the halfway houses that help former inmates get back on their feet have reportedly stopped amid concerns the newly released individuals will carry the disease with them. So Terwilliger remains at the Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, Connecticut, where he fears that underlying health conditions increase his risk of dying from the novel coronavirus.

"It's clear that Connecticut didn't sentence him to death. This is not a death penalty case, but it's getting close to that," said Leah Samuel, a first-year student with the Veterans Legal Service Clinic at Yale Law School, which is representing Terwilliger.

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The clinic filed legal documents Tuesday in U.S. District Court seeking the veteran's release. On Wednesday, it sought to accelerate the process by filing a temporary restraining order, essentially against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, according to Samuel.

"Mr. Terwilliger is asking that he be preserved in a state of not being sick. The relief that is requested [is] that he be let out so he doesn't contact the virus while this is being litigated," she said.

Terwilliger was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 15 years in prison for shooting and killing his son-in-law, Donald Kennedy, in Thompson, Connecticut, in 2003. According to court papers, Kennedy showed up drunk at Terwilliger's home, where his wife, Christine Kennedy, and their children were staying, and the two men got into an argument. During the 2005 trial, Terwilliger maintained that his family was threatened and he acted in self-defense. Witnesses said an intoxicated Kennedy had a scuffle with a neighborhood youth, and Terwilliger confronted Kennedy in his driveway, kicked him and then shot him.

Terwilliger appealed his conviction, eventually winning the right to a new trial. But during those proceedings, he was again convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20 years for what the judge deemed "a senseless and tragic murder without motive, and irrational," according to court documents.

Samuel said Terwilliger's family acknowledges that he needed to do his time, but given that he has received a conditional release, the Connecticut Department of Corrections should follow through with its promise.

"My grandfather spent over two decades serving his country honorably," said Michelle Allen, Terwilliger's granddaughter, in a release. "I know he has a complicated past, but he's served his time. He was a wonderful father and grandfather."

As of Wednesday, the Connecticut Department of Corrections had recorded 308 cases of COVID-19 among prisoners and 222 cases among prison staff. The number of cases at Osborn Correctional Institute is not known -- the state does not release case counts for individual facilities. But the Hartford Courant reported April 10 that several inmates who had been quarantined at Osborn were mistakenly released back into the inmate population and, on April 13, a 62-year-old inmate there died from the COVID-19.

Terwilliger's attorneys say the retired Navy petty officer's ongoing imprisonment counts as "cruel and unusual punishment," a violation of Terwilliger's 8th Amendment rights and the Americans With Disabilities Act.

"Prisons are powder kegs for this virus, and it's only a matter of time before our client is infected," said Arjun Mody, a third-year student at Yale Law School.

Before going to prison, Terwilliger, who also served in the Marine Corps from 1957 to 1963, received a 30% disability rating from the Department of Veterans Affairs for a heart condition, hearing loss and degenerative joint disease.

His family has requested he be released to them and given permission to travel directly to Cataula, Georgia, where he would live with his children.

"I am terrified that my father will get infected and die before we have a chance to ever see him again," said daughter Mary DeSalvo. "My father is an ordained minister. He just wants to spend his remaining years living a spiritual life and growing a vegetable garden. We're begging the court to show him mercy and grant him a second chance with us at a peaceful life."

A phone call to Christine Kennedy's home for comment went unanswered. Her mother, Beverly Daniels, remained Terwilliger's wife following the shooting and passed away while her husband was in prison.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify the nature of Terwilliger's release approval and correct information about stopped inmate transfers.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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