Jim Norris, according to his grandson, only did “what he thought was right.”
Prosecutors put it differently. They call it murder.
Sometime after nightfall on June 8, 2016, Norris walked into the back bedroom of his small, merrily painted blue home in east Charlotte and fired a single gunshot into the chest of his bedridden wife, his prosecutor says.
Charlene Ellen Norris was 79. A .22-caliber handgun was lying on the bed beside her, a single cartridge on the floor. The next morning, Jim Norris, now 83, was charged with his wife’s death.
Left unanswered is a central question behind the shooting: Was it murder or a mercy killing?
Police found two suicide notes – one for Charlene and one for Jim. The couple had been together for 33 years, the second marriage for both.
The union had been good for both sides, a family member says. But in their last years as husband and wife, Jim and Charlene seemingly had locked arms and slid headlong into crippling infirmaries of advancing age.
Both suffered from dementia – Jim’s in a more advanced stage, says Michael Greene, his attorney in the murder case. Charlene, a longtime special needs teacher before her retirement, also had rectal cancer and was dealing with the pain of a surgically replaced hip and knee, Greene says.
For a time, the couple seemed to be cooperatively coping with their growing physical limitations.
“They both cared for each other,” says David Plank of Mint Hill, a grandson of Charlene’s with whom Jim lived for a time after the shooting. “He would help her with her mobility and with getting tasks done, and she would help him with his memory and, you know, just keep him on task.”
Eventually, something in Charlene gave way.
“She asked to die,” Greene says. “She told multiple members of her family that she wanted to die. She told them she wasn’t living anymore.”
Jim and Charlene appear to be part of a growing trend of violence among elderly couples, often in the form of murder-suicides. According to a 2015 report by the Violence Policy Center, 21 percent of murder-suicides in 2002 involved a killer 55 or older. In 2011, it had reached 25 percent. By the first half of 2014, that figure had grown to 33 percent.
Suicide pacts, where both partners agree to end their lives, are “exceedingly rare,” making up well under 1 percent of overall suicide cases, says Dr. Donna Cohen of the University of South Florida, who has studied “family-caregiver homicides” dating to 1980.
The pacts appear slightly more likely to occur among the elderly, she says, with older couples often making their decisions reflectively, then taking great care to plan and carry out their deaths. Frequently, she says, “a disabling chronic or terminal illness” is involved.
Four days after his wife’s death, Jim Norris was indicted on a first-degree murder charge. If convicted, he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Norris’ prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Bill Bunting, told the Observer that he is ethically prohibited from commenting on an upcoming case.
Plank, the grandson, says the families of Jim and Charlene are unanimous in their belief that there was “no ill intent” behind the shooting, and that the charges against Jim Norris should be dropped.
Adds Greene: “This wasn’t some kind of vigilante justice, and this wasn’t anything he did to collect insurance money. There’s this big red book on criminal procedure and law in North Carolina, and then there’s what is right. And sometimes those two don’t necessarily mix.”
‘This isn’t going to work’
In June 2016, when police arrived at the Norris home, Jim told them at first that he found Charlene dead in her bed with the gun beside her, that he had taken out his hearing aid and didn’t hear the gunshot, Bunting said at Norris’ bond hearing.
Under police questioning, Jim’s story began to change. He eventually told police that Charlene had been asking him to kill her for six months, Bunting said.
Plank says that toward the end of her life, his grandmother had been asking everyone from her neighbors to the garage-door repairman to take a look at the couple’s .22 because she didn’t think it was working right.
On the night of her death, according to Plank, suicide notes were placed in the home, along with the couple’s will and a third note Charlene had written to Plank. The grandson says both suicide notes appear to have been written in his grandmother’s hand.
Based on Bunting’s courtroom account, Jim told police he took a pillow and pressed it against his wife’s face. After five minutes, he stopped.
“This isn’t going to work,” Charlene said, according to the prosecutor.
So Jim went for the pistol. The next morning, he walked to a neighbor’s house where the 911 call was made.
Asked why Jim Norris didn’t follow through with the apparent suicide pact and use the gun on himself, Greene refused to say.
Based on a conversation he says he had with Norris, Plank offers this: “He just wasn’t ready to go. He just couldn’t bring himself to do it.”
Too quick to romanticize
Under North Carolina law, there’s no such thing as a “mercy killing.”
“So a prosecutor has to proceed with the case,” says Steve Ward, a former longtime Mecklenburg assistant district attorney.
“But it’s these kind of cases that make your life difficult. You’ve got two different issues you’re dealing with – a strict following of the law, and at the same time, a compassion for what this couple was going through.”
Tracking murder-suicides nationally is difficult, but Cohen and other experts estimate that up to 2,000 occur each year.
Almost three-quarters of these cases involve “intimate partners,” the Violence Policy Center says. More than 90 percent involve men using guns to shoot women.
University of Utah researcher Sonia Salari, who has studied 730 murder-suicide cases dating back almost 20 years, says the media are often too quick to romanticize such killings – describing them as acts of tragic love instead of domestic violence often spurred by anger, frustration, suicidal tendencies or even a life-changing event.
In 2014, for example, an elderly husband and wife were found fatally shot in a south Charlotte apartment, 10 days after their landlord received a court go-ahead to have them evicted.
That same year, an elderly couple was found shot to death in their home in the South Carolina coastal resort community of Seabrook. According to a neighbor, the husband was afflicted with early stage dementia.
“I wish they wouldn’t say ‘murder-suicide,’ even if technically that’s what it was,” the neighbor said. “Aging is just so scary.”
In cases where one or both of the elderly partners are beset by health problems, husbands often decide it’s their job to fix things, Salari says. That can lead to a husband not seeking medical or psychological help or, in extreme cases, making unilateral end-of-life decisions without involving his wife.
The Norris case might be an exception.
“If she wrote her own suicide note, I would call it consent,” Salari says. “That would carry a lot of weight.”
People who aren’t there
As his murder charge inches through the courts, Jim Norris now lives in an assisted-care facility off Idlewild Road. He’s scheduled to be back before a judge next month.
Jail records indicate Norris weighed 110 pounds at the time of his arrest. In March, Greene got a court order to remove the monitoring device his client had to wear on his ankle. “It was heavier than his leg,” the attorney says.
Norris’ criminal file contains conflicting psychiatric evaluations of his competence to stand trial, likely leaving it to a judge to decide on whether the case will be heard by a jury.
Cohen says that if Norris is tried, the most common outcome is a conviction for manslaughter or second-degree murder. Bunting and Greene also could reach a plea agreement that would eliminate a trial altogether.
“What’s the fair thing?” Greene asks. “You know, either way you go, any kind of sentence is a life sentence. He’s 83, and I think what he’s living with now is punishment enough.”
Greene says every time he meets with his client, Jim Norris introduces himself, as if he’s meeting his attorney for the first time.
Norris’ dementia is worse on some days than others, Plank says. He won’t remember things, and at times he’ll have conversations with people who are not there.
He doesn’t know if Jim is talking to Charlene.
"Aging: Life’s Most Dangerous Game" focuses on the possibility of growth late in life, even though the typical dementia story is one of loss and despair. The show uses original music, storytelling and games to convey the meaning of serious neuroscientific
Researcher Maria David contributed