On March 20, 2002, 42-year-old Joi Wright was brought to a hospital in Humboldt County, California where she was pronounced dead. Wright, who had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1994, was emaciated, weighing about 60 pounds and suffering from numerous bed sores.
Wright was brought in by Andre Rollin, who told hospital officials that her primary caretaker was his brother and Wright’s boyfriend, 45-year-old Joseph Pierre Rollin.
In March 2003, a criminal complaint was filed against Joseph Rollin charging him with abuse and neglect of an adult. Rollin was located in Texas and during questioning by police at first said that Wright had died in a motel where his brother had taken her. After receiving a Miranda warning, Rollin said that he had been present when Wright died in her sleep in the small trailer they shared in Orick, California. Rollin was arrested on April 8 and brought back to Humboldt County.
Rollin went on trial in Humboldt County Superior Court in August 2004. Prosecutors contended that Rollin had ordered county health care workers away from their trailer and cut off health services for Wright in the months leading up to her death.
Rollin testified that he and Wright had developed a romantic relationship and that despite her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, at first she was still able to drive a car and take care of herself. In the late 1990’s, Wright broke up with Rollin—abandoning him at a beach miles from home—and moved in with family in Texas. But in 2000, after Wright’s condition had deteriorated and she was confined to a wheelchair, she took a bus to California and wheeled herself about a half mile to Rollin’s trailer and asked him to take her back. Rollin accepted her and she moved in.
By then, Wright was incontinent, had difficulty digesting food and was virtually bedridden most of the time. When health services workers visited Wright, they found her alert and insistent that she was capable of making her own healthcare decisions. The prosecution claimed that in October 2001, health services had been terminated when Rollin said he had a gun and would shoot health care workers if they didn’t stop coming by. (Rollin later denied he had a gun and claimed he was blowing off steam.) A social worker who visited the home in the summer of 2001 at Rollin’s request said Wright said she would rather die than go to a nursing home.
In January and February 2002, a deputy sheriff visited the trailer at the request of Wright’s mother. Wright told the officer that she was fine and wanted her mother to leave her alone.
An acquaintance of Rollin testified that he visited the trailer on March 11, 2002—less than two weeks before Wright died—and that he heard her saying, “Are they here? Did they bring it? Help, help. I’m dying here.” The acquaintance said Rollin said he had been working very hard taking care of Wright and that he was not in a rush to help her. Rollin contended Wright was referring to marijuana and her comment about dying referred to being impatient to smoke marijuana, which stimulated her appetite.
A pathologist testified that Wright had bronchial pneumonia and bedsores, but didn’t have an opinion on whether the bedsores—which the state contended were the result of Rollin’s lack of care—caused the pneumonia. The pathologist also testified that Wright’s multiple sclerosis was not degenerative and her deterioration was the result of a lack of care.
On September 2, 2004, a jury convicted Rollin of dependent adult abuse and found that he had inflicted great bodily injury and was the proximate cause of Wright’s death. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The conviction was reversed in 2006 by the California Court of Appeals, which ruled that portions of Rollin’s statement to police in Texas prior to being given his Miranda warning had been improperly allowed into evidence.
Rollin went on trial a second time in January 2008 with a different attorney, Barry Morris, representing him. Morris brought in an expert on multiple sclerosis who said patients with end stage multiple sclerosis usually die of pneumonia and that Wright’s pneumonia was a consequence of breathing bacteria in the air.
Morris also called Humboldt County Sheriff’s deputy Steven Berry, who was in charge of the station in Orick and who had frequently conversed with Rollin during the nearly two years he cared for Wright after she returned to Orick.
Berry testified that Rollin frequently discussed how worried he was about Wright’s condition and how she resisted medical care. Particularly, Rollin said that although he repeatedly rotated Wright to try to prevent bedsores, she refused to cooperate and would roll back to her original position.
On January 15, 2008, a jury acquitted Rollin and he was released. Rollin later sought compensation from the State of California and filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, but both were unsuccessful.
– Maurice Possley