This is a true story. Martha M., a 72-year-old widow, was charged with murder. She became a widow when her husband, who was suffering and in great pain with terminal cancer, died. Her husband’s death is how she came to be charged with the crime. You see, she gave him the drugs – through his feeding tube – that ended his life.
But she did this after he begged and cajoled her to do so. She was reluctant but was finally convinced by her husband that it was the compassionate thing to do. They were naïve. They both honestly believed it was legal if she injected the drug into his feeding tube at his sincere request. In fact, she had no idea that what she did was entirely unlawful in California and when the police came for the investigation, as they always do when there is a death at home, she tearfully explained the circumstances. She was genuinely shocked when she found herself immediately under arrest.
Later, the prosecutor reduced the charge against, Martha to manslaughter because the prosecutor determined that while she did kill her husband, it would be difficult to prove that she did so with “wanton disregard” for his life i.e., malice aforethought, which is a necessary element of the crime of murder. That Martha believed she was committing a legal act was not a defense.
Because Martha had an active role in her husband’s (a death they both saw as a suicide, but the law did not), she was charged with murder, then manslaughter instead of assisting a suicide, which is also illegal in California. (Penal Code section 401.) Had Martha only provided the lethal does of medication to her husband and he had injected them into his feeding tube himself, Martha would have committed the offense of assisted suicide only, which is a felony in California. Martha confided that she would rather have had it this way, but her husband was too weak and ill to inject anything into his feeding tube.
Martha went through quite an ordeal with the murder, and later manslaughter, charges hanging over her. Her state pension was in jeopardy and she spent tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. She could have been sent to prison and this worry kept her up at nights for a year and a half until her attorney was finally successful in convincing the prosecutor to dismiss the charge.
She truly did not have any viable defense that might apply. She couldn’t claim that she didn’t mean to cause the end of her husband’s life when she poured the medications in the feeding tube; she admitted that she acted deliberately. She couldn’t argue that she didn’t believe the medication would kill her husband or that she accidently overdosed him; she told the police that she gave her husband the lethal does upon his pleadings. And she couldn’t claim as a defense the true fact that she did not think she was breaking the law because her husband wanted to kill himself but was too weak to do so and she only completed what he wanted to do but could not. Yet, through the skilled negotiations of her defense lawyer, the charges were dismissed entirely.
This success was primarily achieved due to the compassion of the prosecutor and Martha’s defense attorney putting together a compelling narrative and mitigation package. We may not always admit it but many outcomes to a criminal charge often is the result of behind-the-door negotiations between the prosecutor and defense counsel.
The take-away here is that it is unlawful to assist a person in their suicide. In fact, it is unlawful in California to even encourage a person to commit suicide who ultimately goes on to complete the act. And it is certainly an unlawful act of murder or manslaughter to accomplish a suicide for another person at their request. Assisting a suicide is a charge fraught with sensitive human emotion. It is not a charge prosecutor are always eager to move forward on. But, as Martha’s case demonstrates, if you are charged with this crime, it is important to have an experienced defense attorney as your advocate.
Orange County criminal defense attorney William Weinberg has over 25 years’ experience defending individuals charged with crimes – minor to major. Whether the charge is a simple misdemeanor or a serious felony, Mr. Weinberg approaches each case with only goal in mind: To get the best possible outcome for his client. Mr. Weinberg offers a complimentary consultation where he will review and discuss the specifics of your matter and offer his assessment of your options. You may contact him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.