Mercy Killings Present Tough Call For Judges, Juries Local Cases Typify Dilemma

Accused killers don’t generally draw a lot of public sympathy, but the Spokane woman who admitted to suffocating her disabled daughter this week may be an exception.

Even juries and judges tend to shy away from guilty verdicts and harsh punishments in so-called mercy killing cases.

There have been some: A Canadian farmer got life in prison for piping exhaust into his pickup and killing his severely disabled daughter last year.

And many Florida residents were shocked when a Fort Lauderdale man was sentenced to 25 years for shooting his wife, who had Alzheimer’s disease.

That was in 1986, and ethicists still marvel at his fate.

“Most of the time, juries and judges believe they suffered a lot and the burden caused them to act irrationally,” said Art Caplan, an ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.

“The communities I’ve seen tend to rally around. It’s a tragedy, but not the same as someone who just goes out and kills their child.”

Mercy killings are uncommon, with only 109 documented cases in the United States since 1980, according to the Hemlock Society USA, an organization that supports euthanasia.

Fourteen-year-old Erin Rockstrom’s relatives said her death falls into that category. Erin’s mother, Deborah Rockstrom, was arrested on investigation of murder after she told police she drugged and suffocated the girl Tuesday.

Erin Rockstrom couldn’t walk, talk or feed herself since a friend accidentally shot her in the head last year.

Her mother is free on bail and prosecutors haven’t filed formal charges.

It’s the second recent case in which local juries may face the gutwrenching job of dealing with people who claim they killed out of compassion.

A North Idaho man is awaiting an April trial for shooting his brother in the head in Kootenai Medical Center’s intensive care unit last fall.

Attorney Glen Walker has high hopes his client, 26-year-old Curt Doty, will dodge a second-degree murder conviction.

“I’m convinced no jury will convict him of murder,” he said. “They won’t be able to find any malice.”

Doty, whose older brother, Daryl, lay comatose after a logging accident, has received more than 100 letters of support from people in the community, Walker said.

Even the dead man’s wife wants Curt Doty to go free.

“I don’t agree with violence, but I know the feelings that pushed him to do it,” said Beth Doty, who is raising two toddlers in Sandpoint.

“Everybody was miserable, not just my husband. It was so hard to cope and deal with it on an everyday basis.”

Beth Doty said she believes her husband wanted to die, but her religious beliefs kept her from ending his life.

It’s been seven years since a Spokane County jury has faced such a case.

In 1988, a retired attorney who lived on the South Hill fired two shots into the head of his invalid wife, who suffered a severe stroke and required constant attention.

Wallace Jones, 66, said he no longer had the stamina to care for her. But he couldn’t bear to put her in a nursing home, where she’d been miserable and neglected before.

Jurors, who believed Jones loved his wife dearly and made a terrible mistake, convicted him of seconddegree manslaughter.

A judge said Jones’ “heart was in the right place” and sentenced him to a year and a day in prison.

“People in the U.S. and judges and juries just don’t know how to handle these cases,” said Ron Cranford, a neurologist and medical ethicist at the Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis. “The pattern around the country is no pattern at all.

“It really puts them in a bind about how hard to prosecute. How hard do they want to prosecute a loving, caring mother who just lost it?”

Mercy killing cases are among the toughest to handle, said Spokane County Prosecutor Jim Sweetser.

While jurors tend to be compassionate, they must also consider the “deterrent aspect” - how their decision may affect someone else who is contemplating a mercy killing, Sweetser said.

“It’s not black and white. It’s one of the most difficult types of cases to evaluate.”

Even emotions on the witness stand can play a huge role in the outcome of mercy killing cases, experts say.

The Fort Lauderdale man who was sentenced to 25 years for shooting his wife didn’t cry and was very matter-of-fact during questioning. That may have been his downfall, said Cranford.

Jurors also have trouble sending someone to prison when they sincerely doubt the killer is a threat to anyone else, he said.

Disabled rights organizations, however, are pushing for stricter charges and penalties in some mercy killing cases.

A group called People in Equal Participation Incorporation is lobbying to uphold the conviction of Robert Latimer of Saskatchewan, who killed his 12-year-old daughter. The girl suffered from severe cerebral palsy.

Group members want to make sure disabled people are protected by the courts by convicting suspects in “mercy killing” cases.

Meanwhile, a Spokane group that favors legal, doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill or those suffering chronic pain from an irreversible condition offers the Rockstrom family its condolences.

“We’re fervently working toward a day when it won’t be necessary to use such nightmarish means to help a loved one hasten death when they’re in an incurable condition,” said Rob Neils, who lobbied for the “Death With Dignity” initiative, which failed at the ballot box in 1991.

“I wish there’s been some way to have this accomplished other than having to snuff her own kid.”

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