The View from Hell

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"I regard this as justice"

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June Hartley of Lodi, California, was charged with “assisting a suicide” and “causing injury leading to death” for helping her brother to commit suicide. She recently pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of “being an accessory to a crime.” (I thought suicide was not illegal?)

Her brother, blues musician Jimmy Hartley, had suffered a series of strokes which left him bound to a wheelchair and in constant neuropathic pain. Prior to his death, at age 45, he had begged others to help him end his life.

Both Hartley’s lawyer, Randy Thomas, and the prosecutor in the case, Sherri Adams, expressed approval of the plea agreement.

“I regard this as justice,” Thomas said. “It sent two messages: The district attorney had an acknowledgement [sic] that the law was broken but also that it was a unique situation involving mercy.”

The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Sherri Adams, said the plea agreement was just. Adams said the District Attorney’s Office must scrutinize cases of assisted suicide, which are illegal in California, to prevent malicious killings that are masked as merciful.

Hartley’s actions, Adams said, were a genuine act of mercy.

“This case did not involve any ill will,” Adams said. “The defendant violated the law out of love and support for her own brother.” [Emphasis mine.]

Both Hartley’s attorney and the prosecutor seem to agree that this is the correct outcome for a case of assisted suicide.[1] Adams and Thomas recognize two kinds of harm:

  1. The harm of living in misery and not being able to die (hence the recognition that the act of helping a person to die can be merciful or compassionate, and that such a person should not be punished);
  2. The harm of a “malicious killing” (presumably a murder, but perhaps something else is meant) going unpunished.

The statement that the outcome in Hartley’s case is “justice” indicates that the correct balance has been struck between the two kinds of harm.

In fact, in this case the first interest – the right to choose death over suffering – is almost completely sacrificed at the expense of the second – punishing “malicious” killers. James Hartley’s interests, and those of people like him, are ignored. Adams is concerned with “malicious” killers disguising their work as assisted suicide. But what about all the people suffering in misery, who have a longstanding wish to die, but cannot die because anyone assisting them will face prosecution? The idea that June Hartley’s actions were “merciful” concedes that her brother had an interest in dying. Prosecuting people who assist suicides does nothing to protect that interest.

Also, as I have previously argued, prosecuting assisted suicides is an extremely poor way (in practical terms) to prevent malicious killings from being disguised as suicides. In Oregon and Washington, for example, it would be extremely difficult to make a murder look like an assisted suicide, at least a murder of a person ill enough to qualify for suicide assistance from a doctor. Since a comfortable means of assisted suicide is legal, with many safeguards to ensure that it is the true wish of the decedent, an “assisted suicide” by any other means would be unlikely and extremely suspicious. I assert that assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington is much harder to fake than in California – and, of course, the right to die is protected better there, as well. Both interests recognized by Adams and Thomas are poorly protected by the solution they claim is “justice.”

Elsewhere on the web, TGGP rips apart Frontier Psychiatrist‘s definition of rationality, in the context of suicide (“Life is a disease, so cut the bullshit please.”). Rationality in this context means that a decision is “characterized by reason or ‘makes sense’ to others,” FP claims. I manage to comment in both places without rolling my eyes or sighing deeply.

And Bryan Caplan wonders why so few terminally ill people kill themselves.


1. The term “mercy killing” is often used in cases such as Hartley’s. I think this term is misleading: “killing” implies that one person caused another person’s death – such as by smothering or shooting the person – without his permission. In Hartley’s case, she merely helped her brother achieve his own aim of dying. Helping someone to commit suicide who has a longstanding wish to die is not properly considered a killing.

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Written by Sister Y

June 4, 2009 at 1:49 am

4 Responses

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  1. I thought suicide was not illegal?
    “MF” makes just that claim at the Frontier Psychiatrist post.

    I manage to comment in both places without rolling my eyes or sighing deeply.
    So are you also the blogger at Hard-to-Swallow?

    TGGP

    June 4, 2009 at 2:49 am

  2. I responded to it on the FP post (the legality claim). Just today – as of now it hasn't been moderated.

    In relevant part I said:

    —–
    MF comments above that “suicide is legal.” This is true in a limited sense – suicide itself is not punished criminally. But, interestingly, suicide is the only non-criminal act that can be prevented by force. It is the only non-criminal act the assisting of which is a crime. And, most importantly, the only humane means of death – overdose of barbiturates – is illegal (unless prescribed). Legal methods (gunshot, hanging, opening an artery) are painful and likely to result in injury and horrors – they are considered too cruel for even convicted murderers or animals. These factors together function as a de facto suicide prohibition.
    —–

    Hard-to-Swallow

    I dunno what that is.

    Sister Y

    June 4, 2009 at 2:58 am

  3. I didn't know your comment was still in moderation. Now reading the comments at FP I see that the commenter promotes clearly different views than you. Their blog discussed depression and had links regarding suicide on the side-bar.

    TGGP

    June 4, 2009 at 5:05 am

  4. I'm not entirely sure that I agree on the point that murders-disguised-as-suicides would be lessened. I imagine more families taking in their disabled, senile, and crippled (or otherwise unable to express themselves independently) to an assisted-suicide clinic and claiming that wishes to die were expressed. I've never been in the situation, but I imagine some people feel themselves so “burdened” that forging paperwork would be tempting. I can see just as many hurdles to the deserving if legal suicide were contingent on independent psychiatric assessment to prevent such misuse. But I have no experience with the Oregon and Washington systems.

    AM

    September 4, 2009 at 1:18 am


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