Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Closer Look at Assisted Suicide Charges in Commonwealth v. Mancini

As earlier reported on this Blog, the Court of Common Pleas of Schuylkill County in Pennsylvania, dismissed the high profile criminal charges against Barbara Mancini, the nurse charged with "causing or aiding" the suicide of her aged father, in violation of 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2505(b).  The ruling reviewed testimony presented during a preliminary hearing before a magistrate, as required by the defendant's petition for a writ of habeas corpus.  Much has been said by proponents and opponents of assisted suicide in connection with this ruling, but here is the actual opinion, all 47 pages.

The opinion demonstrates a high level of emotion for everyone involved in the case, including the judge.  There was a gag order in place during the last several months, so key details about the evidence or the arguments made by counsel are only now available.  So, please forgive me if I now use the blogger's prerogative to do more than just report the facts. Three starting points:

  • What strikes me as important about this ruling is that it should not be misconstrued as a "win" for those who claim there is a constitutional or other legal right to provide or receive assistance in death. At least not in Pennsylvania under its current law. 
  • Further, a careful reading of the opinion demonstrates the potential for more confusion (and additional cases) for those who interpret -- misinterpret -- Powers of Attorney, Advance Health Care Directives, Living Wills, or Do Not Resuscitate Orders as granting them legal authority to provide assistance in suicide. Again, that is not the current law in Pennsylvania, or in most other states.   
  • Finally, a careful reading of the opinion makes it clear -- at least to me -- that the hospice aides who called 9-1-1 in response to the facts in front of them, were acting within the law. They were responding to what the opinion documents fairly well as "admissions" of the criminal act of assisted suicide, facts that took the matter beyond the patient's right to accept or reject life-saving efforts. 

In terms of "proof" of a criminal act, the opinion demonstrates the importance of careful preparation of a criminal case when called upon to demonstrate the prima facie elements of the crime charged, as occurs during a preliminary hearing. That is the job of the prosecution team, not the hospice workers. The prosecution, in this instance the Pennsylvania Attorney General's office, either failed or was unable to present independent proof of the facts alleged, and instead were focusing almost solely on the "admissions."  

In Pennsylvania, as the opinion discusses, the prosecution needed to present evidence of the person's intention to kill himself, action taken to effectuate the suicide, the third-party's intentional aid or assistance in that attempt, and evidence that the third party's action actually "caused" the attempted suicide.  Under Pennsylvania's corpus deliciti rule, the prosecution had to establish these elements without "just" relying on the defendant's own alleged admissios or confession. In particular, the opinion shows the importance of expert testimony to establish cause of death, needed in this case to explain "morphine toxicity." 

What the entire case also suggests -- not just the opinion -- is the need for Pennsylvania, and most states, to give fresh consideration to the topic of assisted suicide.  The record makes it pretty darn clear that Joe Yourshaw had lived a long life, fought the good fight, was ready to die, was tired of living in pain, and he was competent when talking about his wishes to die.  We cannot just stick our heads in the sand and say "this case isn't likely to happen again."

The tragedy associated with the last days of Joe Yourshaw and the confusion surrounding the circumstances under which Barbara Mancini, his daughter, was charged, are events that can and should permit Pennsylvania, like Oregon and Washington before it, to consider whether competent individuals with terminal illnesses should be permitted to work directly with health care professionals to make carefully considered decisions about whether to choose professional assistance with their death. Sons, daughters and spouses, whether or not "nurses," should not be put in this position, and other states have shown us there are options.

Some people will argue that the real tragedy would be to leave loving family members with no option but to violate the law (and either face the potential for criminal prosecution or "hide" the evidence) or turn a blind eye and deaf ear to a loved one's carefully considered pleas.  As you may be able to tell, while I think the hospice workers in this case were right to report the evidence they saw and heard that pointed to violation of Pennsylvania's current law, I'm one of those people ready to reconsider that law. 

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/elder_law/2014/02/a-closer-look-at-assisted-suicide-charges-in-commonwealth-v-mancini.html

Advance Directives/End-of-Life, Crimes, Current Affairs, Ethical Issues, State Statutes/Regulations | Permalink

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