Pennsylvania’s oldest female inmate has died

(Emma Lee/WHYY

(Emma Lee/WHYY

Lois Farquharson, a Philadelphia psychiatrist who was the oldest woman imprisoned in Pennsylvania, died Wednesday at a state prison in Cambridge Springs.

Farquharson, 91, had been sentenced to life behind bars for the August 1971 death of her Philadelphia State Hospital colleague Dr. Leon Weingrad, an osteopath.

Gloria Burnette, Farquharson’s lover and former mental patient, gunned the doctor down in the parking lot of Society Hill Towers, where all three lived. But prosecutors argued that Farquharson masterminded the murder after Burnette testified at trial (and later recanted) that she killed Weingrad to please Farquharson, who she said accused her of having an affair with Weingrad.

In a 2006 prison interview, Farquharson told the Philadelphia Daily News that she and Burnett believed Weingrad was homophobic and tried to get Farquharson fired for professional incompetence. She denied plotting the crime or even knowing about it.

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Still, Farquharson spent more than 43 years behind bars — longer than Burnette’s 20 years

Supporters called for compassionate release as her health faltered.

For some, Farquharson represented a failure of a state that, with more than 5,000 inmates serving life sentences, condemns more people to die behind bars than almost anywhere else. As the state’s prison population grays, prisoners’ rights advocates have called for geriatric inmates like Farquharson to be freed because they’re too old and infirm to kill or maim again, and cost too much to keep behind bars. (Victims’ advocates, meanwhile, say “truth in sentencing” means that inmates don’t deserve commutation or pardons just because they’re ill or old.)

By the time she died, Farquharson was frail, showed signs of dementia and spent most of her time sleeping in the infirmary at the State Correctional Institution at Cambridge Springs in northwestern Pennsylvania, according to her supporters.

“Clearly, she wasn’t a threat or a danger,” said Ann Schwartzman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Prison Project, which has long advocated for compassionate release for old and infirm inmates.

“She would have done much better in the community staying with friends, or in hospice, or a hospital setting,” Schwartzman added. “Cost-wise, it would have made more sense to have her in the community. At a certain point, we have to question this commitment to retribution and punishment, and look at what makes more sense for the individual and the community as a whole. [Old inmates] don’t have the capacity because of their age and ailments to pose any kind of threat.”

With Farquharson’s death, Alice Green, 86, of Philadelphia, is now the oldest female inmate in Pennsylvania, according to prisons spokeswoman Susan McNaughton.

Only one inmate statewide – William Wels, 93, who’s serving a 6- to 12-year sentence – was older than Farquharson. He was jailed at age 91 for a murder out of Allegheny County.

The state Department of Correction considers inmates age 50 and older to be elderly. Almost 20 percent, or more than 9,500, of the state’s nearly 49,000 inmates, are elderly, McNaughton said.

That elderly prison population had been growing until recently; since Dec 31, 2015, it has decreased by about 9 percent, McNaughton said.

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