Op-ed: Unjust prosecution shows why we need death-with-dignity laws

In each of the 43 “Murder, She Wrote” novels I’ve written based upon the popular TV show of the same name, a murder is committed.

Someone in the prime of life is denied many years of fulfillment and happiness. Toward the end of each book the murderer is identified through the fictitious Jessica Fletcher’s sleuthing, and justice is served, as it should be.

Donald Bain

Donald Bain

But then there’s the case in Pennsylvania of Barbara Mancini, an exemplary woman, wife, mother of two teenage children, devoted daughter, and Philadelphia nurse who was in serious legal trouble because of an overzealous state attorney general.

She was facing up to a 10-year prison sentence if she is wrongfully convicted for “assisting suicide” for allegedly handing her 93-year old father, Joseph Yourshaw—suffering debilitating pain from end-stage diabetes, heart and cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease and arthritis—his partially filled bottle of legally prescribed morphine to help ease his pain in his final days.

Joe was a home hospice patient; his daughter and Joe’s 84-year old wife, Marge, spelled each other at his bedside. Joe became unresponsive after drinking the morphine. A hospice nurse arrived to check on him because he had fallen the day before. Despite Barbara’s pleas to honor her dad’s do-not-resuscitate order, the hospice nurse called her supervisor, who called 911, and Joe was rushed to the hospital, where he was revived.

He died four days later, his physical and mental suffering exacerbated by knowing that his daughter had been arrested for violating the state’s assisted suicide law and could be facing years behind bars—like any of the murderers in my books.

Joe had given his daughter his medical power of attorney and trusted her to carry out his wish to die peacefully at home, which was ignored by the hospice. Remarkably, he was injected with more morphine by his attending hospital physicians, which might have been what finally allowed him to be permanently relieved of his suffering.

Yet, Mancini had not only lost her beloved father, she’d been put on unpaid leave from her job as an ER nurse. Her husband, a Philadelphia paramedic, has had to work two jobs to keep up with their bills, including more than $100,000 in legal fees they already have incurred.

Had this case happened in Cabot Cove, Maine, the fictitious town where much of “Murder, She Wrote” takes place—and I were writing the story—I would have Jessica Fletcher urging the attorney general to drop this case against Barbara Mancini. And do you know what? That’s exactly what would happen.

Yes, prosecutors take an oath to uphold the laws of the jurisdiction in which they serve, but they also have broad discretion in choosing which cases to pursue. There are myriad legal questions in the Barbara Mancini case that cast doubt as to whether she’d handed her father the bottle of morphine she did so to hasten his death, including whether or not that was her intention.

Fortunately, a judge dismissed the case on Feb. 11, citing the lack of evidence, but the attorney general responded defiantly by stating that unless the law was amended, she “would continue to enforce the law as it currently exists.” In any case, a moral issue also hangs in the balance.

A number of states, including Oregon, Washington and Vermont, have passed laws sparing physicians from prosecution when they provide an aid-in-dying prescription to terminally ill adults who request it so they can take the medication if their suffering becomes unbearable and die with dignity. Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania are considering similar death-with-dignity legislation.

A dying family member, and those who love him or her, should be able to deal with this end-of-life tragedy in their own way, without heavy-handed government intrusion into their moment of profound sorrow.

We can only hope that we all have a Barbara Mancini at our bedside when reaching the end of our lives. Charges against her were rightly dropped.

That’s the way the story would end in my book.

Donald Bain lives in Danbury and is a member of Compassion & Choices, the nation’s leading end-of-life advocacy organization. This op-ed previously appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News.

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