Hospital shooting fuels euthanasia debate

2012-08-13 11:02

Cleveland - John Wise watched a tear roll down his wife's face as he stood alongside her bed in the intensive care unit. She'd been unable to speak after suffering a stroke and seemed to be blinking to acknowledge him, Wise confided to a friend who had driven him to the hospital.

The couple had been married for 45 years and Wise told his friend that they had agreed long ago they didn't want to live out their years bedridden and disabled.

So a week after Barbara Wise's stroke, investigators say, her husband fired a single round into her head. She died the next day, leading prosecutors to charge the 66-year-old man with aggravated murder on Wednesday in what police suspect was a mercy killing.

The shooting leaves authorities in a dilemma some experts say will happen with greater frequency in coming years as the baby boom generation ages — what is the appropriate punishment when a relative kills a loved one to end their suffering?

More often than not, a husband who kills an ailing wife never goes to trial and lands a plea deal with a sentence that carries no more than a few years in prison, research has shown. In some instances, there are no charges.

"It's a tragedy all around that the law really isn't designed to address," said Mike Benza, who teaches law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

Diagnosed with cancer

A New York man in March was sentenced to six months in jail after suffocating his 98-year-old disabled mother and slitting his own wrists.

He told authorities he had just been told he had cancer and believed he was going to die soon, and feared no one would care for his mom.

A Washington state man accused of shooting his terminally ill wife this year told investigators she had begged him to kill her; he is free on bail while prosecutors weigh charges.

Almost always, there are deeper issues involved with the accused, including depression, their own health problems and the stress of taking care of a dying spouse, said Donna Cohen, head of the Violence and Injury Prevention Programme at the University of South Florida.

Seeing a dying or disabled spouse suffering can be enough to push someone over the edge, said Cohen, who is writing a book called Caregivers Who Kill.

"Men will hit a wall when they can't do anything else," Cohen said. "That's usually a trigger."

Sympathetic juries

She worries this will happen more often with longer life expectancies and a continuing shortage of mental health services for older people.

In the early 2000s, testifying before a Florida legislative committee, Cohen cited research showing that two in five homicide-suicides in the state involved people aged 55 and older. The number of cases grew among older people while staying the same with those under 55 years old.

Police say Wise took a taxi from his home in Massillon, calmly walked into his 65-year-old wife's room on 4 August at Akron General Medical Centre without drawing any attention, and shot her.

Juries are often sympathetic to those who kill a spouse out of what is portrayed to be love and compassion, but the message that sends is unclear, said Wesley J Smith, a California lawyer who wrote a 2006 book Forced Exit: Euthanasia, Assisted Suicide and the New Duty to Die.

"Where's the stopping point?" he said. "There almost comes to become a cultural acceptance that certain people are better off dead than alive."

Those who kill a loved one to end the suffering are acting out of their interests, he said. "We're really putting Grandpa out of our misery," Smith said.

Invalid defence

Wise's lawyer has said that he was a good man who was devoted to his wife.

"I am absolutely confident that everything that he's ever done for his wife has been done out of deep love, including the events that just recently transpired," said attorney Paul Adamson.

The former welder also suffered from nerve damage that made his hands and feet numb, survived bladder cancer and had diabetes, said Terry Henderson, a 30-year steel plant co-worker.

Those issues could help his case if it goes to trial. "The facts surrounding her death are sympathetic and may actually foster a plea before trial," said Jeff Laybourne, a prominent Akron defence attorney.

But just because his wife may have been suffering isn't a valid defence under the law, Laybourne said.

Other factors that could determine whether the case goes to trial include the timing of the shooting and that it happened in such a public place.


Henderson thinks Wise may have snapped under the weight of both of their health concerns. "He never dreamed, given his history of medical problems, that this would happen to her before he'd go," Henderson said.

That kind of situation can be deeply depressing for a person dependent on the care of a spouse who suddenly is disabled, said Dr Peter DeGolia, a physician specialising in care for the aging at University Hospitals Case Medical Centre in Cleveland.

"If this man was dependent on his wife for care and basic well-being, and suddenly she's gone, he's going to feel very vulnerable, highly at risk," he said. "Older white males are the highest risk group for carrying out suicide plans."

It's a scenario that DeGolia said can be defused with help from social workers and hospice care for the dying.

"There are lots of options," he said, "aside from going and shooting them".

  • zaatheist - 2012-08-13 11:41

    This story brought tears to my eyes. Every person has the right to die with dignity and there should be legal provision (like a will) for a person to require that their life be peacefully ended if they are rendered permanently incapable of communicating that wish. My wife and I would immediately sign and register. I hope that this man is not criminalised for what was the ultimate act of love.

      zaatheist - 2012-08-13 11:47

      Laws need to be changed to enable every able bodied person to sigh a legal document (like a will) in which one gives the right for one's life to be terminated in such circumstances where one is no longer able to communicate ones wishes.

      carpejugulim - 2012-08-13 12:54

      It would be wonderful if a living will was recognised in SA. If a person has made a concious decision (whilst sound in body and mind) that in the event of complete incapacitation and pain their choice is to terminate their life then they should be allowed to do so with dignity.

      Leah - 2012-08-13 13:51

      Unfortunately, it seems that there is no law in South Africa that recognises a living will. However, it seems you can draw up a living will; for instances where you are unable to refuse medical treatment for a disease. A contradiction in terms I think. The doctor can assist with relief, but he does not treat the disease. Every person should have the right to die with dignity and enjoy quality of life. No husband should be forced to these extremes. It is so sad and tragic.

  • zaatheist - 2012-08-13 11:46

    This is a terribly sad story. Everyone has an absolute right to die with dignity and I hope this man is not criminalised and punished for what is the ultimate act of love and compassion.

  • phae.rayden - 2012-08-13 12:22

    Archaic laws forced this women to die a violent death when it could have been humane and peaceful. Hopefully this is the case which eventually leads to setting a new precedent in allowing euthanasia. Hope her husband doesn't spend a day in prison for honouring their agreement, and finding no other option but to use a gun.

  • maryjane.mphahlele - 2012-08-13 12:29

    only God decides when one should die,there is nothing as mercy killing

      zaatheist - 2012-08-13 12:57

      Well then that is YOUR choice but you have absolutely no right to impose your beliefs on anyone else.

      zaatheist - 2012-08-13 12:58

      BTW - only your version of god decides. For the rest of us who believe in other gods or no gods at all then that is another matter.

      Desilusionada - 2012-08-13 16:46

      @zaatheist I am, as a result of my value/reference frame and belief system, what some people may call a Christian and as such do not always agree with your posts. I do however defend your right to do so and your right to have your own opinion. I this case however, I have been in the position where I had to make certain choices, and believe me the right to die with dignity is a right that is many times trampled and lightly talked about. This is when you start asking yourself if dying can ever have any dignity. And then afterwards you have all these doubts and self blame and feelings of guilt. I do hope that should I ever have to make these choices again, that I will have the courage to do so again! But believe me this Mary Jane Mphahlele does not know what she so glibly talk about. It took me until last year to watch Million Dollar Baby. But the decision is every individual's and no law or belief can proscribe to anyone.

  • willem.leroux.75 - 2012-08-13 12:40

    Though this story elicits sympathy and is very sad, I think it is not right that the tools are not there to make the correct decision, like in this case. She suffered a stroke but could still communicate - this is wrong that her husband made the decision so early and alone. My father suffered multiple strokes about 7 years ago at 69 years af age, could not talk properly, severe memory loss, cannot walk to this day, diagnosed with Dementia and is in the Dementia frial care ward. After 7 years it seems that the synapsis are grown back as he is able to communicate with us effectively, his memory is back, he sits up in a wheel chair, and we thank God that he is still with us. My Mom, who was his lifeblood, as she was looking after him and visiting him every day, has just passed away having had Lung - and then Brain cancer. Issue is, we did not seek any injunction for my Dad, as it appears that time has "brought" him back. Now that my Mom has passed away, we are spending all our efforts in assuring him that it is OK to go on with life given that my Mom is no longer there. Society has a way of dealing with this and Society can make a collective decision, but for one man to make the decision, especially given that he loves his wife so much, surely he is not equiped with the right tools to make such a decision.

  • Tony - 2012-08-13 12:43

    This whole story and the underlying problem is super-tragic.

  • jackie.m.dickson - 2012-08-13 16:17

    I wish he was my husband!! I truly hope they leave him be. He will have to live with his actions for the rest of his life already! Unlike most criminals its very likely that he does have a conscience.

  • becky.jamieson1 - 2012-08-13 16:22

    I would do the same thing as well as would want the same thing. As much as I am afraid of dying I would never want my last days spent as a veggie not being able to do anything. I would want anyone to do the humane thing and take me out my misary. If a family member had to ask me to euthanaise them if they were ever in that state I would, it would be very hard and I would probably not be ableto sleep for a long time but I would!

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