Suicide law had different target

Md. legislators intended to block Kevorkians, not kids

January 22, 2000|By Jay Apperson and Andrea F. Siegel | Jay Apperson and Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

Maryland legislators had Dr. Jack Kevorkian in mind when they banned assisted suicides. But prosecutors could probably apply the new law in circumstances like those surrounding a Crofton girl's recent suicide, legal experts said yesterday.

"It's incredible because, truthfully, that was not the legislative intent," said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat who opposed the bill.

But she added, "I can see what [authorities] are trying to do."

Other lawmakers, along with legal experts, agreed yesterday that prosecutors would likely be able to apply the assisted suicide law in circumstances such as those surrounding the death Oct. 18 of 15-year-old Jennifer M. Garvey.

The Crofton girl, who had a history of depression, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head after entering into a suicide pact with her boyfriend, according to police and an autopsy report. Police found her dying in an underground drainage tunnel in Crofton after the boyfriend went to a friend's home to say the girl had shot herself.

A police source said a gun found near her body came from the boyfriend's home.

Authorities are looking into the possibility of bringing charges under Maryland's new assisted suicide law. The law makes assisting a suicide or attempted suicide a felony punishable by up to a year in prison and a $10,000 fine.

The law is the first in Maryland to explicitly outlaw the practice, although a 1993 attorney general's opinion had cited unwritten "common law" in saying that prosecutors can charge someone with aiding a suicide.

If charged, the boyfriend apparently would be the first since the law took effect Oct. 1.

Anne Arundel County State's Attorney Frank R. Weathersbee said his office will study the case once police bring reports and forensic test results to him, which should be within the next few weeks, and decide whether to file charges.

Adult charges unlikely

Because of his age, the boy would not face adult charges unless prosecutors took the unusual step of trying to move the case into adult court.

"Ignoring the problems doesn't make them go away. The point of juvenile law is to get help," he said. "Obviously this child has some problems. Maybe it is the wise thing to charge him."

Juvenile Court sanctions can range from releasing a child to his parents, with conditions such as counseling and curfews, to detaining him until he is 21.

Jennifer's father, Steven C. Garvey, blames the boyfriend for his daughter's death. He called juvenile sanctions "a joke" when he considers that he'll never see his daughter again.

"It's this," he said, lightly slapping his wrist.

The boy, who is not being named by police or by The Sun because he is a juvenile, could not be reached for comment. His mother has declined to comment.

Legislators surprised

Maryland lawmakers seemed surprised that the first potential test of the new law would have nothing to do with medical care. Both houses of the General Assembly passed bills only after an emotional debate in which opponents argued that the law would have a chilling effect on doctors' attempts to ease pain at the end of life.

"The purpose of the law was really to stem or stave off the Dr. Kevorkian-types in Maryland, if there were any," said Sen. Norman R. Stone Jr., a Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

He was referring to the Michigan doctor who was convicted last year of second-degree murder in the death of an ailing man who asked to die.

The law contains sections that pertain only to medical professionals. But another section forbids any "individual" from assisting another person in committing suicide, either through "coercion, duress or deception."

The law also prohibits anyone from providing the "physical means" for suicide while knowing of the person's intent to commit suicide."

Stone said the "physical means" provision was designed to outlaw devices such as Kevorkian's "suicide machine."

Legal experts said using a suicide pact as evidence of coercion would likely be difficult. But they said the law could likely be applied if it is proved that one person gave another a weapon that was then used for suicide.

`Within the statute'

"I think this is dead square within the statute," said Byron Warnken, a University of Baltimore law professor and specialist in criminal law.

Abraham A. Dash, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, agreed, but he said the law might be unconstitutional because it is so broad and because it might turn otherwise lawful acts into crimes.

What if a hardware store owner sold rat poison to a person he knows to be suicidal, and who he suspects will use the poison to kill himself? he asked. The law "covers so many circumstances that may be 50-50," he said.

In passing its law, Maryland became the 38th state to explicitly criminalize assisted suicide. Oregon is the only state with a law that permits physician-assisted suicides.

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