Roswell Gilbert, spurred debate on mercy killing

September 08, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Roswell W. Gilbert, a retired engineer whose life term for the 1985 shooting of his terminally ill wife was commuted, died Saturday in his sleep at the home of his daughter in Ruxton. He was 85 and had been in ill health for some time.

The mercy killing of his wife, Emily Gilbert, who was terminally ill with Alzheimer's disease and osteoporosis, sparked a nationwide debate on euthanasia and a 1986 TV docudrama that starred Robert Young as Mr. Gilbert and Eddie Albert as Joe Varon, his attorney.

Charged with first-degree murder and found guilty by a jury, Mr. Gilbert was released after serving 5 1/2 years in prison when his life sentence was commuted by then-Florida Gov. Bob Martinez in 1990.

"Daddy never regretted doing what he did at the time. He never denied doing what he did. I think he still felt he put Mother out of her misery," said his daughter, Martha Moran of Ruxton. "His attitude toward prolonging suffering in the end was that it was a ridiculous idea." "We've been through hell the last 10 years. Once he got out of prison, his health began to fail. The prison experience was extremely stressful and after his release, his life became more solitary. He returned to the condominium where he lived with my mother and spent his time reading. His friends began dying and in the end of his life, he really became a recluse."

Pat May, a reporter who covered Mr. Gilbert's case for the Miami Herald and remained his friend, said, "I always believed his story of ending his wife's life because he loved her. But obviously, not everyone agrees with that.

"He showed our society that you can rally actions and words and that it is possible to do what he did -- end a person's life -- out of love."

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Gilbert earned his engineering degree from Lehigh (Pa.) University in 1932. It was while at Lehigh that he met his wife, the former Emily Rosser of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

They were married in 1933 and settled in Montclair, N.J., where Mr. Gilbert took a position with Weston Electronics. During World War II, he worked on the development of SONAR and was associated with the development of the atomic bomb, even attending the first test blast at Los Alamos, N.M.

He later went to work for Dictaphone and the couple made their home in New York City where Mrs. Gilbert enjoyed entertaining and attending parties.

"Daddy was always quiet," said his daughter. "Mother was outgoing and he preferred at parties to talk quietly one-on-one with people. He was really a very unassuming individual."

After retiring from Dictaphone and establishing a consulting business, the Gilberts left New York and moved to Majorca, Spain. When warning signs began to appear about Mrs. Gilbert's health, the couple moved in 1977 to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In March 1985, Mr. Gilbert fatally shot his hopelessly ill wife of 51 years.

"My father was one of the most moral men I've ever known. He was a kind, considerate and brilliant man. He was a loving father and husband," Mrs. Moran said.

Mr. Gilbert rarely appeared in public and last year spoke at the dedication of the Emily Gilbert Alzheimer Center in Boynton Beach, Fla., a day care center for those with the illness.

There were no services.

He is also survived by three grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the Alzheimer's Association of Central Maryland, Suite 202, 540 E. Belvedere Ave., Baltimore 21212.

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