Prisoner  Richard Keech, shown during his 1997 trial, should be allowed to go home to die with his family.
Prisoner Richard Keech, shown during his 1997 trial, should be allowed to go home to die with his family. (Press-Telegram file photo)

Nearing his 90th birthday, Richard Keech is confined to a medical unit at the High Desert State Prison in Susanville.

His family says he stays alive on Ensure, a nutritional drink, and on weekly letters sent from Long Beach by his wife, Kay. Prison staffers read the letters to her husband, whose sight is failing.

The 1997 trial of Keech made area headlines. A prisoner-of-war during World War II, the one-time Marine defended the murder of his son-in-law, calling it a consequence of post-traumatic stress syndrome brought on by his incarceration in a Japanese prison camp.

"My father is in prison because he killed my abusive husband to protect my son, my mother, and me," his daughter Nancy said in a recent advertisement she ran in the Press-Telegram.

With the family trying for a compassionate discharge that would give their patriarch a brief stay at home, the ad sought letters of support from readers.

In response, says Nancy, "Our family received 43 letters and 32 e-mails of support for my dad." In the ad, she had also said, "My father is in prison, because he killed my abusive husband (Nicholas Candy) to protect my son, my mother, and me."

After Candy's death, Nancy went back to her maiden name.

Dying behind bars

As an aging prisoner, Keech has suffered from a number of ailments, including bone deterioration, skin cancer, spinal stenosis, a torn retina and damage to a femur that has been broken twice. His family worries that Susanville's correctional treatment center is not equipped to deal surgically with Keech.

"The prison hospital is not equipped for surgery," says Nancy. "It's more like a nursing home. My dad is not eating enough to survive. The prison doctor suggested an external tube be surgically inserted into his stomach for feeding purposes, which would have to be done at an outside nonprison hospital."

When the doctor asked Keech what he would like to have done, Nancy says her father replied that he simply wanted to go home. He is serving a sentence of 25 years, plus 10 years for use of a gun.

While Keech survives on such fare as Ensure and on telephone calls from home, his wife, Kay, religious since childhood, says she gets by in part on daily Bible readings.

"I had hoped that God would not send us a burden that would be too hard to bear, and He hasn't," says Kay, 87. "But sometimes I wonder."

Kay says the family is hoping that Keech will be granted "a compassionate release." Toward that end, she and daughter Nancy will be traveling to Sacramento later this month.

Says Nancy, "My dad is not a danger. He is an outstanding man with a long history of compassion, integrity and good works.

"My dad's medical conditions make him incapable of ambulatory motion. He cannot see, hear or concentrate very well...It would give me closure to have my father come home to die."

In the governor's court

The irony in the case of Richard Keech is that it is unfolding at a time when California is virtually broke. It should also be noted that the yearly cost of housing a prisoner of Keech's age is about $70,000, about twice the cost to house a younger inmate.

The difference stems from obvious reasons such as medical expenses to less obvious, such as the construction of new beds to accommodate prisoners who cannot climb to the upper tiers of conventional bunk beds.

Add to that the cost of paying for lengthier sentences imposed during the "get-tough" sentencing of the 1980s and 1990s, when two- and three-strike laws were being imposed frequently, parole was minimized and prison construction soared.

With California under federal court pressure to reduce its 172,000 inmate population, the wonder is that cases like those of Keech are not examined as a cost-cutting measure.

Keech will turn 90 on Oct. 27, assuming he lives that long.

Unlike many of California's elderly prisoners, he has a loving family anxious to take him back and care for him. And now having all he can do to get in and out of bed, the man whose daughter said acted to protect her from spousal abuse in 1996 hardly seems a threat to anyone.

His neighbors, from all accounts, would welcome him back.

I live not far from that home myself and am willing to gamble that my premises will not be invaded by a rampaging, wheelchair-bound nonagenarian.

How about it, Gov. Schwarzenegger?

Tom Hennessy's column appears the first and third Sundays of the month in the Press-Telegram. He can be reached by e-mail at scribe17@mac.com.