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UPDATED: 80-year-old among those released from prison in the midst of virus crisis

The Connecticut Department of Correction has released more than 1,100 inmates since March 1, but as cases of COVID-19 continue to mount within prison walls, some still say it's not enough.

As  of Wednesday, the DOC reported 321 inmates and 244 staff members have contracted the disease caused by the new coronavirus. On the same day, the Veterans Legal Services Clinic at Yale University Law School filed an emergency federal lawsuit on behalf of an 80-year-old veteran convicted of fatally shooting his son-in-law in 2003.

David B. Terwilliger, who is nearing the end of a 20-year sentence for first-degree manslaughter with a firearm, was denied parole but approved for community release on April 7. DOC spokeswoman Karen Martucci said Wednesday he was approved for release to a halfway house based on his age and medical condition, and the agency was looking for an appropriate placement.

On Thursday, responding to news that the DOC had found him a halfway home placement, family members issued a statement indicating they were relieved he would be leaving the prison but they would prefer to have him out of a group setting altogether.

Terwilliger's daughter, Mary DeSalvo, wants to pick him up from the Osborn Correctional Institution and drive him to her home in Cataula, Ga., where she said in a prepared statement that her father, a U.S. Marine and Navy veteran, wants to spend his remaining years living a spiritual life and growing a vegetable garden. Due to his veteran status, his family says he will be able to seek VA health care in Georgia without inconveniencing the Connecticut health care or prison systems.

"I am terrified that my father will get infected and die before we have a chance to ever see him again," DeSalvo said.

The family said Terwilliger is at high risk of severe COVID-19 due to his advanced age and history of "heart attacks, strokes, labored breathing, pleurisy of the lungs, hearing loss, and degenerative joint disease."

The law clinic filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus and emergency relief in U.S. District Court in New Haven on Tuesday, and on Wednesday Judge Stefan Underhill ordered the DOC to respond by May 1 with a reason the petition should not be granted. The Yale students claim in the lawsuit that it's cruel and unusual punishment to continue holding Terwilliger and violates his rights under the Eighth Amendment and 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 law student in Yale's Veterans Legal Services Clinic. "As an elderly individual with underlying health conditions, Mr. Terwilliger's life is in grave danger. (The DOC) must release him to his family without delay, before his incarceration becomes a death sentence."

His granddaughter, also from Georgia, said in a statement that Terwilliger spent more than two decades serving the country and doesn't deserve to die alone.

"I know he has a complicated past, but he's served his time," the granddaughter, Michelle Allen, said in a news release.

According to court documents, Terwilliger shot and killed his son-in-law Donald Kennedy after Kennedy arrived drunk at Terwilliger's home in Thompson, got into a fight with another man outside the home and threatened Terwilliger.

The DOC's only reported inmate death to date occurred on April 13 at Osborn Correctional Institution in Somers, the same facility where Terwilliger is being held. The death sparked a week of drive-up protests at prisons around the state. The 62-year-old inmate had been approved for community release, but the DOC was unable to find housing for him.

"We are heartened to learn that (DOC) plans to release Mr. Terwilliger to a halfway house in response to his lawsuit," said Kayla Morin, a third-year law student at Yale Law School working on Terwilliger's case. "Every day that Mr. Terwilliger remains in Osborn Correctional Institution places him in graver danger of serious illness and death. However, it's not enough: the state should allow Mr. Terwilliger's family to transport him to his daughter's care in Georgia, where he can self-isolate away from other incarcerated individuals."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut has filed lawsuits in state and federal courts seeking the reduction of the prison population to reduce the spread of the virus.

DOC Commissioner Rollin Cook has said the department is considering a number of factors, including public safety, as it is reviewing prisoners for release, and is not letting anybody out of prison without a solid housing and supervision plan.

k.florin@theday.com

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