An eight-person jury is to start deliberations today in a difficult case involving a suicidal Phoenix woman and a national right-to-die organization.
Superior Court Judge Paul McMurdie is presiding at the manslaughter trial of co-defendants Larry Egbert and Frank Langsner, who are charged in the 2007 assisted suicide of 58-year-old Jana Van Voorhis.
The defendants, who are both in their 80s, are members of the Final Exit Network, known as the most radical of the current "right to die" organizations.
Dr. Egbert, a Maryland native, is the group's medical director and "approved" assisting Van Voorhis with the suicide (everything short of actually physically help the woman with the actual act). He didn't know Van Voorhis, nor did he set foot in Arizona until after his grand-jury indictment and arrest.
Scottsdale resident Langsner was a volunteer "junior exit guide," who first advised the mentally troubled woman about how she could kill herself painlessly if she wished--inhaling helium through a hose, with an oxygen-eliminating hood snugly over her head.
The retired college professor was at Van Voorhis' central Phoenix home with another Final Exit volunteer (who earlier pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and testified for the prosecution) in April 2007 when the woman killed herself.
Yesterday, the jury began to hear closing arguments in the unusual case, which has touched on complex legal and ethical issues. (The PBS show Frontline is planning to run a documentary on the case and has videotaped the entire trial.)
Here is a story published a few years ago that provides all the background you might need.
Both defendants are charged with conspiring to commit manslaughter (assisted suicide in this instance), and Langsner also is charged with actually committing the manslaughter. Neither man testified in his own defense, nor did they offer any other testimony on their own behalf.
Deputy county attorney Patrick Johnson told the panel that the Final Exit defendants' intent was clear.
"We're not talking about an ignorant organization," the young prosecutor said. "They're smart people. They know know, and they knew they were breaking the law...They knew full well what they were doing."
Don Samuel, a Georgia attorney serving as one of Egbert's lawyers, argued that "this is not a Gambino crime family, like the Maria or something...[Final Exit] is not a group that encourages, actively participates, or advises anybody to commit suicide."
The veteran attorney obviously knows that the word "advises" may come back to haunt the defendant, and he smartly tried to deal with it head-on.
One of Judge McMurdie's jury instructions says that "to aid" means "to assist in the commission of an act." That assistance can include both "active participation" and "advising the person to commit suicide."
The definition of "advice" is fraught with possible interpretation, as the evidence unquestionably showed that both Langsner and his onetime co-defendant Wye Hale-Rowe were intimately involved with Jana Van Voorhis' demise.
One point worth noting as the jurors begin to deliberate: For legal reasons, they never learned that Van Voorhis was not seriously physically ill when she committed suicide, but was suffering from long-term mental illness.