Jury selection is set to start April 5 in a "right to die" manslaughter case involving two "exit guides" who helped a deeply disturbed Phoenix woman commit suicide.
The trial of Final Exit Network medical director Dr. Larry Egbert and Scottsdale resident Frank Langsner, both in their 80s, will touch on several controversial legal and ethical questions. But the most pressing issue for the panel will be whether it was a crime for the defendants to help Jana Van Voorhis suffocate herself at her Phoenix home in April 2007.
The accused were part of FEN, an offshoot of the now-defunct Hemlock Society — a right-to-die organization that moved into mainstream consciousness in the late 1980s, well before Dr. Jack Kevorkian (who helped more than 100 people kill themselves) became a cause célèbre.
Final Exit describes itself on its website as the nation's sole right-to-die outfit "willing to help individuals who are not 'terminally ill' (six months or less to live) hasten their deaths. No other organization in the U.S. has the courage to make this commitment."
New Times broke the story of the Van Voorhis case in an August 23, 2007 story titled "Death Wish." It described how family members had found the 58-year-old woman dead in her bed on the afternoon of April 15, 2007.
Viki Thomas described in the story how her sister had suffered from serious mental illness for most of her adult life. Thomas said she and her husband, Tom, immediately suspected suicide.
A late-blooming investigation by Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office revealed that Van Voorhis had joined FEN months before her death (membership had cost $50). Two members of the organization later went to her home, where they taught her how to suffocate herself by inhaling helium after placing a hood tightly over her face.
The pair later admitted that they had looked on as Van Voorhis died.
Frank Langsner and Wye Hale-Rowe, a retired family therapist from Colorado, then took steps to cover their tracks. They evaded detection for a few months, as Phoenix police began their investigation only after Van Voorhis' brother-in-law listened to incriminating voice messages sent to Van Voorhis by Langsner.
New Times tracked down Hale-Rowe for the 2007 story, and she sounded ambivalent over what happened in Phoenix.
"I'm not one to say we should treat mental illness the same as physical, because it's too easy to say and too hard to do," said Hale-Rowe, who then was about to turn 80. "We're on pretty shaky ground, I think, and we have to be very, very careful in this area. I just went into a risky case, and now I'm stuck with what happened."
Hale-Rowe and another former co-defendant, onetime Final Exit national coordinator Roberta Massey, pleaded guilty to reduced charges of facilitation to commit manslaughter, a Class Six (lower-level) felony. The two have yet to be sentenced, and part of their plea bargain mandates they testify against the remaining defendants, Dr. Egbert and Langsner, 82 and 85, respectively.
Delaware resident Massey testified at a pretrial hearing that she assigned "exit guides" by calling FEN volunteers. That is what happened in the Van Voorhis case, she is expected to tell jurors at the upcoming trial.
Dr. Egbert, who lives in Maryland, is charged with conspiracy to commit manslaughter, a major felony. Though Egbert apparently never set foot in Arizona before being charged in this case, a county grand jury indicted the medical doctor after prosecutors alleged that he "approved" FEN's involvement in the Van Voorhis suicide in an e-mail.
Court records suggest Egbert himself has been an "exit guide" in as many as 40 "events," though it isn't clear whether each of the people involved killed themselves. Over the objections of the defense team, Judge Paul McCurdie has ruled that prosecutors can elicit evidence at trial about Egbert's hands-on history with the Final Exit Network.
Deputy County Attorney Sherry Leckrone argued in pretrial pleadings that "the defendants were engaged in a series of events that included processing the victim's file, making sure she obtained the right equipment, going to the victim's home, rehearsing the 'exit' event, planning the way the scene would look after the death, and dispersing of the helium tanks, bag, and tubes."
But David Kephart, a Phoenix attorney who is part of Egbert's defense team, claimed that Final Exit guides often encourage suicidal subjects not to kill themselves.
"This is an informed-consent organization, not the Rotary Club," he wrote in one pleading.
Kephart noted that FEN believes any competent adult who is suffering has the right to end his or her life. The notion sounds reasonable enough, but the stumbling block (at least in this case) is the word "competent."
Evidence that emerged after Van Voorhis died revealed she was anything but mentally competent. Her longtime doctor had ended their professional relationship a few months before the assisted suicide, citing the woman's increasing paranoia and other deep-rooted psychological issues. Her family (Van Voorhis was single and lived alone), who had stuck with her over the years, noted deterioration in her also precarious mental state.
During the investigation, Phoenix police confiscated a report authored by Hale-Rowe to Final Exit brass. She wrote, "Jana seemed to need assurance a second and third time that the procedure would be painless and peaceful. Frank [Langsner] had obviously established a warm, supportive relationship with her and, after an hour together, she seemed willing to transfer trust to [Hale-Rowe]. The volunteers left, promising to return that night to have the death event. Jana was cheerful and upbeat."
An articulate woman whose testimony at the upcoming trial will be critical, Hale-Rowe took pains with New Times to describe FEN's philosophy:
"Maybe we have a more enlightened vision these days, because we don't blame people for wanting to die anymore. Some of them can be made much more comfortable and can enjoy living and stay around for a long time. But others really can't, and Jana was one of them. She wasn't getting better, and she could have been sent to some kind of facility and lived another 20 years — miserably."
Van Voorhis' family sees it differently.
Her sister, Viki, told New Times after the grand jury indictments against the Final Exit defendants, "Jana was a troubled person, and we would and never did deny that. But she did have a life, and she was loved, and it isn't right that someone came over to her house and set it up for her to die just like that. That was wrong, and it is wrong."
The trial is expected to last about three weeks and will include about 30 prosecution witnesses and five witnesses for the defense.