In 1997 Congress overwhelmingly passed the "Assisted Suicide Funding Restriction Act" (398-16 in the House and 99-0 in the Senate) and President Clinton signed it into law. The law permanently prohibits the use of federal funds for assisted suicide. In addition, it authorizes research into pain treatment and suicide prevention and requires a federal study of how health care professionals are trained in end-of-life care.
In June of 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously to uphold state statutes from New York and Washington that prohibit assisted suicide in all cases, including terminal illness. Writing the majority opinion in both cases, Chief Justice Rehnquist said that absolute bans on assisted-suicide violate neither the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment (as asserted in the New York case) nor the Due Process Clause (as claimed in the Washington case).
In addition to this Supreme Court ruling, several lower courts--in California, Michigan and Florida--have upheld the constitutionality of state bans on assisted suicide.
Anchorage Daily News; November 15, 2000
Anchorage, AK -- Those in favor of assisted suicide and those opposed tossed the word "dignity" back and forth before the Alaska Supreme Court on Tuesday as the court took under advisement a law that says no one, not even a doctor, can engage in an assisted suicide.
One side claimed mentally competent adults in the end stage of terminal illness have the right to die with dignity by self-administering lethal medication obtained from their doctors. The other side argued with equal fervor that allowing even very sick people to choose suicide insinuates that life as a disabled person is undignified and somehow less valuable.
The Alaska Catholic Conference submitted a brief in support of state law banning assisted suicide, asking the court to "let nature take its course" and noting that the plaintiffs want the court to "constitutionalize private killing."
Assistant Attorney General Eric Johnson argued that a terminally ill adult considering suicide could be subject to social pressure, that someone could be coerced into making the decision. He said almost all terminally ill people can get medication for their pain and they often have a "substantial period" of their lives left to live.
"We as a society value equality, and that means valuing disabled lives (the same) as others," Johnson said. "You can't discount a life just because you have" limited time.
Kathryn Tucker, an attorney for the Compassion in Dying Federation dismissed Johnson's concerns. She said that in Oregon, where voters approved an assisted suicide law, 70 percent of those who chose to die were receiving excellent health care, including effective pain medication.
The case argued in court on Tuesday was filed in 1998 on behalf of Kevin Sampson and a woman identified as Jane Doe. Sampson, a former state Department of Revenue auditor, died last year of an illness related to AIDS. Jane Doe, a former physician, died of cancer earlier this year. An Anchorage Superior Court judge upheld Alaska's ban on assisted suicide in a ruling in August 1999. The plaintiffs appealed the case to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Tuesday's argument, fluctuating between law and emotion, drew a full courtroom of observers, including members of Not Dead Yet, an organization that opposes assisted suicide on the grounds that no safeguards prevent coercion, as well as members of Compassion in Dying Federation and the Alaska Catholic Conference.
Associated Press, Reuters; February 2, 2001
Los Angeles, CA -- A former respiratory therapist who once called himself the ``Angel of Death'' pleaded innocent Friday to killing six people by injecting them with a drug that stopped their breathing.
Prosecutors allege that Efren Saldivar, 31, injected victims with a paralyzing drug called Pavulon while he worked at Glendale Adventist Medical Center between 1996 and 1997.
Saldivar entered his plea before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Kellogg through his public defender. He is due back in court on March 30.
His arrest last month capped a three-year investigation begun after Saldivar told police he considered himself the ``Angel of Death'' and offered a detailed confession to more than 40 murders at Glendale Adventist Medical Center over a five-year period during the 1990s. He later recanted those statements.
Saldivar told police during his initial confession that he killed terminally ill people by injecting them with Pavulon, a drug that stops patients from breathing. He was arrested last month after authorities found Pavulon in the exhumed bodies of six elderly patients who died on his watch in 1996 and 1997.
The drug is normally given to patients who are going to be placed on a respirator. Five of the six patients he is accused of killing were not given the drug as part of their regular treatment.
Saldivar, who worked at the hospital on and off for eight years, initially told police that he killed only those patients who were unconscious, had a "do not resuscitate" order on their charts and appeared close to death. But he recanted shortly afterward, telling a national TV audience that he confessed to crimes he did not commit because he was severely depressed and wanted to be put to death.
Saldivar, of Tujunga, Calif., is charged with six counts of murder with special circumstances. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
Source: Reuters; January 12, 2001
Ottawa, Canada -- The Supreme Court of Canada said on Friday it would announce next week its decision on whether a father convicted of murdering his disabled daughter should have a shorter jail sentence because she suffered from severe cerebral palsy.
In 1993 Saskatchewan farmer Robert Latimer killed his 12-year-old daughter Tracy, who had suffered the severe physical and mental disorder since birth, by piping exhaust fumes into his pick-up truck.
The high-profile case goes to the heart of whether involuntary euthanasia should be allowed, and has many advocates of the disabled angry that a lower standard of justice could apply to people with handicaps.
Latimer said he had no choice but to end his daughter's suffering. His lawyers say it would be cruel and unusual punishment to give him the minimum sentence of at least 10 years, with no parole, that second-degree murder requires.
The Supreme Court said its decision on the case would be released at 9.45 a.m. next Thursday.
This is the second time the Latimer case has reached the Canadian Supreme Court. Latimer killed Tracy in 1993 but the Supreme Court ordered a new trial in 1997 because police had asked potential jurors about their attitude toward euthanasia, abortion and religion.
In the subsequent trial Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder but the judge described his crime as a "compassionate homicide," exempted him from the mandatory minimum penalty and sentenced him to two years instead.
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal overturned that decision in 1998, imposing the mandatory life sentence with no chance of parole for 10 years. The Supreme Court is now due to rule on Latimer's appeal of that Saskatchewan appeal court verdict.
Source: Reuters; March 15, 2001
Amsterdam, Netherlands -- The Netherlands' controversial bill to legalise mercy killing has claimed its first victim in the very profession it was designed to protect.
An Amsterdam court has found a doctor guilty of murder for overstepping the euthanasia criteria in a ruling that could hinder the bill's progress into law when it goes before the upper house of parliament in April.
The case of general practitioner Wilfred van Oijen, who hurried along the death of a patient with only hours to live, has highlighted the thin and fuzzy line between what constitutes euthanasia and what is simply medical treatment in the final stage of life.
"I'm sure the Van Oijen case will raise questions around the debate. In that way, it couldn't have come at a worse time," said Rob Jonquiere, managing director of the Dutch Voluntary Euthanasia Society (DVES). "Our concern is that at the last moment, too many members of the Senate will reconsider their decisions -- not on the basis of being against euthanasia or against the law -- but by asking themselves if things are moving too fast," he said.
Last November, the Dutch lower house approved a bill to allow euthanasia, legalizing a practice tolerated for more than 20 years. Before the Van Oijen ruling, the bill's passage through the upper house Senate had been viewed as a simple rubber-stamp procedure.
"People will think further about the issue because the case is an example of the absence of a request to die, but has nevertheless been ruled as an act of euthanasia," said Yvonne Timmerman, spokeswoman for the Christian Democratic Party (CDA), which, with 20 seats, is the largest party in the 75-seat Senate.
The CDA and a handful of smaller Christian groupings were the only parties to object to the bill in the lower house. Their opposition in the Senate will not be enough to defeat passage of the pro-euthanasia law. If passed, the Netherlands will be the first country formally to allow mercy killing. Australia's Northern Territory legalized medically-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients in 1996, but the law was later repealed.
Van Ooijen was formally found guilty of killing an 84-year-old woman in February 1997. The woman, his patient for 17 years, had heart and vascular problems and brittle bone disease. She had been bed-ridden for months, according to Joop Seegers, Van Oijen's lawyer.
Seegers said the woman's daughters begged Van Oojen to "do something," asking him: "Would you leave your dog like this?" Van Oijen gave the woman a muscle-relaxing drug commonly used in euthanasia. She stopped breathing shortly afterwards.
The court ruled that because of his choice of drug, the patient's death was due to euthanasia, and not, as stated on the death certificate, natural causes. But Van Oijen's defence was that he was administering treatment in the final stages before death, not performing euthanasia, and therefore he did not have to follow the rules laid down in the mercy killing bill.
Indeed, Van Oijen had failed to follow some basic euthanasia principles -- which was precisely why he was prosecuted. He had not discussed euthanasia with the patient, the patient had not requested it, and no second doctor had been consulted.
The court ruled he had made an "error of judgement" and found him guilty of murder. But it said he had done what he thought best for his patient and therefore imposed no prison sentence. Van Oijen has announced his intention to appeal.
"This was not a case of euthanasia. It was treatment in the last stage of death. The patient never asked for her death in so many words, but she gave enough signals that she didn't want to suffer any more," Seegers told Reuters.
"This is one of these cases where doctors end someone's life without a specific request," he said. "But you can hardly speak about life in this case. Nothing was functioning anymore."
Latest figures from the DVES, considered the most reliable because they include deaths not reported to the coroner, show there were 3,600 deaths from euthanasia or assisted suicide in 1995. Jonquiere expects this to rise to around 4,000 cases in 1999 when the DVES publishes revised figures.
Source: Associated Press; March 15, 2001
Springfield, MA -- Kristen Gilbert was hired as a caretaker, but the accusations that followed painted a gruesome picture: The nurse allegedly killed four patients at a veterans hospital with drug injections to impress her boyfriend.
Gilbert now faces the death penalty after a federal jury convicted her Wednesday of three first-degree murder charges and one second-degree murder count. She also was convicted of trying to kill two other patients who did not die.
The same jury that spent nearly 12 days deliberating after the three-month trial is to reconvene Monday to consider if the 33-year-old mother of two should be executed or sentenced to life in prison.
``Now, I can go to the cemetery and feel good that vengeance has been done,'' said Julia Hudon, the 67-year-old mother of one of the victims, Henry Hudon.
Massachusetts banned capital punishment in 1984. But the case was tried in federal court, where murder can be punishable by death because the crimes took place on federal property, at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northampton, Mass.
Gilbert bent her head and wept quietly as the verdict was read. Her parents, Richard and Claudia Strickland, of Setauket, N.Y., sat behind her in the courtroom. Richard Strickland covered his face with his hand as the verdict was announced.
The victims' families cried and let out gasps of relief, but they are split on what Gilbert's punishment should be.
Christine Duquette, the sister of Hudon, says Gilbert should die. ``She is a serial murderer. Nothing is going to stop these people,'' she said.
Julia Hudon says life in prison may be a harsher sentence. ``She is a young person, and every day she would have to relive what she did,'' Hudon said. ``She was e-mailing her lover while my son was dying.''
Prosecutors said Gilbert injected patients with overdoses of epinephrine, or adrenaline, sending their hearts racing out of control. They said she wanted to attract attention, especially from her lover, a hospital security guard.
The boyfriend, James Perrault, said she once told him, ``I did it! I did it! I injected those guys with a certain drug.'' But later, Gilbert told him she was only trying to make him angry, Perrault said. They were breaking up at the time. Prosecutors said she once climbed atop a patient and straddled him, apparently so Perrault could see her garter belt.
Gilbert's lawyers blamed the emergencies and deaths on natural causes, saying the patients were already seriously ill. They argued she was falsely accused by co-workers who were upset she was having an extramarital affair.
``Every single one of these people had a coronary disease, were at risk for a coronary disease or at risk for sudden cardiac death,'' defense attorney David Hoose said in closing arguments. ``If you start out looking at these cases with a suspicious eye, then you'll find suspicion.''
The deaths occurred in 1995 and 1996, as the government began investigating the unusually high rate of deaths from cardiac arrests that occurred on Gilbert's shift at the hospital.
Source: Associated Press; September 13, 2000
Portland, OR -- A grand jury has refused to indict a male nurse on criminal charges in the deaths of four nursing home patients who allegedly died of morphine overdoses.
The terminally ill patients died at the Sheridan Care Center between November 1997 and January 1998.
State officials say all four had been given morphine by Michael J. Coons, 45, a nurse who worked at the care center.
In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Coons said the grand jury's decision not to indict him shows he did nothing wrong.
"I told the press in the beginning that I had not exceeded doctor's orders nor had I exceeded my scope of practice," Coons said. "This verdict by the grand jury simply affirms that and reaffirms my belief in the legal system that an innocent man doesn't need to fear."
The grand jury had been meeting since July and called 25 witnesses before announcing its decision Tuesday, Yamhill County District Attorney Brad Berry said in a statement issued Wednesday.
"Although the grand jury has completed its investigation into this facet of the case, further inquiry is contemplated concerning other allegations related to the care facility and other individuals," Berry's statement said.
Berry later told The Associated Press he could not say what other charges might be considered or which individuals are under investigation.
"But as far as these four deaths are concerned, I feel confident that no other charges will be there," he said.
He declined to comment on the decision itself, saying only that the jury had worked very hard on the case and reviewed hundreds of pages of documents, "probably approaching 1,000."
Holder's lawsuit said that care center officials also knew or should have known that Coons had been diagnosed as being bipolar, that he was on medication and that he was not stable or fit to be in control of patients in a care home.
A state investigation reached the same conclusion last year and fined the center the maximum $6,000 allowable by law.
Care center employees said the owner of the facility, Linda Johnston, had just received confirmation of the grand jury's decision Wednesday and had no immediate comment.