The trial of two aged members of the "right to die" organization Final Exit Network continues in Maricopa County Superior Court today, with prosecutors certainly hoping things go better for them than last week.
Dr. Larry Egbert and Frank Langsner are on trial for conspiring to commit manslaughter in the April 2007 "assisted suicide" of Phoenix resident Jana Van Voorhis. The 86-year-old Langsner also faces an additional count of manslaughter.
We broke the story of the closely watched case (cameras for the PBS television show Frontline are in Judge Paul McMurdie's courtroom) a few months after the mentally disturbed 58-year-old woman suffocated herself at her home with a plastic bag and an infusion of helium from a rented tank.
Family members found the woman's body in her bed a few days after she died.
Trouble was, Van Voorhis killed herself in the presence of and with the assistance of defendant Langsner and former co-defendant Wye Hale-Rowe. The latter has pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and is expected to testify against Langsner and Dr. Egbert (Final Exit's "medical director") during the trial.
This case has been fraught with legal and moral potholes from the start, what with the inevitable overarching right-to-die issues and other difficult questions. But prosecutors contend that it was against Arizona law for the defendants to have assisted Van Voorhis in expediting her death.
The odds of the jury convicting either defendant may have taken a hit last week, when Judge McMurdie ruled that prosecutors cannot elicit testimony about Jana Van Voorhis' precarious psychological state at the time of her death.
That was a body blow to the government, as a key component to its case is the undisputed contention that she was suffering from serious mental illness when she solicited the aid of the Final Exit Network months before she died.
The judge (a former longtime prosecutor himself) also ruled as legally inadmissible self-incriminating statements made by Scottsdale resident Langsner in the suicide's aftermath to Phoenix police homicide detectives.
At this point in the proceedings, guilty verdicts against the two men seem a longer shot than they did at the trial's start, but (to dredge out a cliche -- the Kentucky Derby's just around the corner) a lot of the race has yet to be run.
Both defendants are expected to testify in their own defense, but who knows?
It remains the state's burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and the prosecution testimony of former Final Exit Network "senior exit guide" Hale-Rowe and another key member of the organization (Roberta Massey) will be pivotal.
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