Opening statements started this morning in the jury trial of two "right-to-die" octogenarians charged in the case of a mentally disturbed Phoenix woman who committed suicide in 2007.
A packed spectator's gallery at Maricopa County Superior Court heard dramatically divergent views of criminal defendants Dr. Larry Egbert and Frank Langsner, charged with conspiring to commit manslaughter by assisting the suicide of 58-year-old Jana Van Voorhis. Langsner also is charged with manslaughter.
(We have written extensively about this fascinating case, Here is the main story, published a few months after Van Voorhis' death.
The panel first heard from prosecutor Sherry Leckrone, who described 82-year-old Larry Egbert as "the Godfather" of the Final Exit Network, a Georgia-based "right to die" group that has assisted in untold numbers of suicides around the nation.
Egbert, a medical ethics professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, didn't know Jana Van Voorhis, nor his co-defendant Langsner before the April 2007 suicide by suffocation inside Jana's east Phoenix home.
But prosecutor Leckmore said Egbert, in an e-mail, had approved Final Exit's participation in the suicide -- Scottsdale resident Langsner and another Final Exit volunteer actually were present when Jana put a plastic bag over her head and inhaled helium from a tank supplied innocently by a local magic shop.
"You may not like our [assisted suicide] law," Leckmore told the rapt jurors, "but it protects individuals...contemplating one of the most important decisions of their lives -- whether to end [it]."
Donald Samuel, an Atlanta attorney representing Larry Egbert, naturally painted a wholly different picture of his client than did the prosecutor.
He described the medical doctor as a distinguished man who "believes that people have a right to choose" the time and manner of ending their lives.
The articulate Samuel said that the Final Exit Network tries to ensure that suicidal people don't have to secure a shotgun or "jump off a tall building in downtown Phoenix" if they choose to die.
And, for sure, the attorney claimed, neither his client nor the FInal Exit Network as a whole "aid people in committing suicide.
Larry Egbert is "a great, great humanitarian," Samuel told the jury.
Phoenix attorney Antonio Bustamonte spoke just as highly of his client, 86-year-old retired college professor Frank Langsner, whom he called "a man with huge concerns for society and other people -- a man with compassion."
What happened at Van Voorhis' home that April evening in 2007, Bustamonte said, was Langsner's "way of contributing back to the world," not committing manslaughter.
This one promises to be a close call, with a bona fide chance at a hung jury down the road just because the legal and moral issues are so complex.
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