At her arraignment in Ulster County Court on May 4, Phoenicia resident Solane Verraine pled not guilty to second-degree manslaughter in the death of her husband, John Owings, Jr., a guitarist known as Johnny Asia. But apparently Verraine had told police she helped Asia die. And now her fate hinges on complex considerations of law, suffering, and mercy.
Ulster County Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael J. Kavanagh alleged that Verraine had crushed a large quantity of prescription medications and mixed them in brandy to help Asia commit suicide. This conclusion was drawn from evidence found on the scene and from statements made by Verraine when first responders arrived at the couple’s home on November 19, 2016, in reply to her 911 call to report Asia’s death. According to Kavanagh, “She said he had been sick for a long time, she wanted to help him, and it was a mutual decision to help him commit suicide.”
Verraine’s plea of not guilty to the manslaughter charge is routine in such cases, said Kavanagh, adding, “There will be negotiations. I don’t know where it will go from here.” A grand jury indicted Verraine in mid-April, reducing a murder charge, and the case is expected to go to trial in the next three to six months, although Kavanagh said a plea bargain is a possibility.
Asia had suffered for at least five years from a number of ailments, including spondylolisthesis, a degenerative back condition, for which he took pain medication. Kavanagh said, “There was nothing in his medical records to suggest a terminal illness, but he was not in good health.”
When asked what kind of sentence is usually imposed in such a case, Kavanagh replied, “I’ve never had a case like this before, so I don’t have a basis for comparison. We had a suicide pact case that happened a few years ago, where one person went through with it, and the other did not. There was some jail time, and the remainder was served through probation.”
In Verraine’s case, he confirmed, probation is one of the sentencing options. The law specifies the possibility of a five- to 15-year prison sentence, but he said, “We are not going to be seeking the maximum in this case.” She has been in the Ulster County Jail since her arrest last November.
Kavanagh expects Verraine’s attorney to make a formal bail motion, and there will be a hearing on whether bail should be granted.
Sixty years ago, attempted suicide was illegal — although rarely prosecuted — throughout the United States. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, prohibition of suicide was eliminated from the statutes of one state after another, and there are now no laws in the U.S. that prohibit taking one’s own life.
Helping another person take their own life is a different matter. It’s still illegal in all 50 states to provide the means for someone to commit suicide — except, under certain conditions, if you are a physician. Seven states now permit “medical aid in dying,” prescription of a lethal dose of medication requested by a mentally competent person who has been diagnosed with up to six months left to live. If such a law is passed in New York, it would not offer a legal option in cases like Asia’s, since he apparently did not have a terminal diagnosis. However, there are situations where legalized medical aid in dying could prevent a lonely, agonizing death or the implication of a loving friend or family member.
Laurie Leonard is Executive Director of End of Life Choices New York (EOLCNY), one of several plaintiffs in a lawsuit on behalf of Sara Myers and three other terminally ill people who sued for the right to obtain lethal prescriptions to end their lives. “People who are suffering often commit suicide alone,” Leonard said, “since your spouse, or whoever helps you, could be arrested. They can’t have a loved one with them because it puts the loved one at risk of arrest. They have to go off and do something violent. For people without a terminal diagnosis, I personally would like to see a world where it wasn’t limited to six months, but in America that seems to be the point that’s acceptable.”
In Canada, a similar case led to a ruling by the Supreme Court that aid in dying is legal throughout the country and is not limited to a six-month terminal diagnosis but is permitted for anyone with incurable, intolerable suffering.
Leonard and other end-of-life activists feel the changes in medicine have produced an inhumane situation where people can live for years, enduring extreme pain, with poor quality of life. “Dying today is very different from 100 years ago,” Leonard pointed out. “People died relatively quickly then. There were no antibiotics, no way to cure many diseases. Now we keep people alive for months or years when they’re suffering. Physician aid in dying is such a humane way, a choice everyone can make for themselves. We’re not saying people have to choose it. Some people want to be kept alive as long as possible. We feel it should be everyone’s personal right to decide.”
Sara Myers, one of three patient plaintiffs in Myers v. Schneiderman, was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, which she said in a 2015 press conference, was “paralyzing my entire body, piece by piece, while my emotional and intellectual capacities remain intact. Eventually, this disease will rob me of my ability to breathe. I could quit eating and drinking until my organs shut down, a death which would be neither dignified nor compassionate. When the time comes, I want to be able to gather my loved ones around me and bid them goodbye.”
EOLCNY objects to calling aid in dying “physician-assisted suicide,” partly because the term creates opposition to their goal. Polls asking whether people approve of “medical aid in dying” produce many more positive responses than those that inquire about “assisted suicide.” Furthermore, said Leonard, it’s not really suicide. “Suicide is when people want to die. With aid in dying, they want to live, but they have a terminal diagnosis. They are going to die whether they want to or not, and they want to choose how to die.”
The lawsuit cites the precedent of September 11, when people jumped out of the windows of the World Trade Center. “They had to choose between jumping and burning,” said Leonard. “The medical examiner did not rule their deaths suicide but homicide. In states where aid in dying is legal, the death certificate gives the cause of death as the underlying disease.”
Aid in dying is currently legal in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Oregon, Vermont, Washington, and Montana. Oregon’s law was passed in 1994, while DC, California, and Colorado made the provision legal in the past two years. Except in Montana, where the ruling was made via a court case, the laws explicitly require specific provisions. The person must be at least 18 years old and a state resident. They must be diagnosed with a terminal illness that will lead to death within six months. They must be declared mentally competent by two examiners. They have to make two oral requests to their doctor, at least 15 days apart, for a lethal prescription, followed by one written request. Then they have to wait 48 hours before the prescription is made available. The patient must be capable of ingesting the medication without help; the physician cannot administer the drug. “In Oregon, where it’s been legal for 20 years,” noted Leonard, “about one-third of the patients who get the prescription never use it but are comforted by knowing it’s available.”
The New York State legislature has crafted a Medical Aid in Dying Act based on existing laws in other states, but the bill has been stalled for over a year. Last year it was passed by the Assembly Health Committee near the end of the legislative session, and there wasn’t time for it to go further. This year, it’s under consideration by the Health Committee and the Codes Committee. If passage doesn’t happen before the legislative recess in June, the bill will not be passed this year either. “That’s one of reasons we brought the lawsuit,” said Leonard. “It’s hard to pass the law in New York because of the Republican-controlled Senate. Republican politicians are traditionally against aid in dying, although Republican residents poll 72 percent in favor, as compared to 75 percent for the population as a whole in New York State.”
The court case asserts that laws against aid in dying violate constitutional rights of individuals. Two lower courts have rejected the plaintiffs’ claims, and the case is currently under appeal. If successful at a May 30 hearing in Albany, EOLCNY will be able to present their case in a public trial. “The objective of the trial will be to show that medical aid in dying is not prohibited in the New York State Constitution,” said Leonard. “The law prohibits assisting a suicide, but it was written at a time when we could not envision life being extended to the point where people were suffering. They could not have had this in mind when they set up the law. We’re also arguing that under the Constitution, people have the right to decide what’s going to happen to their own body. This applies to do-not-resuscitate orders,” the right of a patient to refuse intervention in advance if breathing or heartbeat ceases.
So far, the judges have not agreed with EOLCNY. An opinion written by Justice J. P. Mazzarelli cites papers published by the American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, as well as the New York State Task Force on Life and the Law, “endorsing the view that the refusal of treatment and the affirmative administration of life-ending medication are fundamentally different things.” The judge referred to the interest in “preserving human life, protecting the integrity and ethics of the medical profession, and ensuring the welfare of vulnerable groups,” such as the elderly, poor, socially disadvantaged, and those without access to good medical care. The Task Force publication is quoted as noting “the role of treatable symptoms such as pain and depression in creating a desire for lethal medications. It also noted that most doctors lack a sufficiently close relationship to their patients to appropriately evaluate a request for help in ending life, and expressed the concern that it could open the door to euthanasia of those incapable of giving consent.”
The court declined to declare the ban on aid in dying unconstitutional, saying the legislative branch would have to change the law if, in fact, times have sufficiently changed. Still, EOLCNY hopes that if the case comes to trial, the outcome will be influenced by the testimony of the plaintiffs, including four doctors, three patients, and the organization’s clinical director. Two of the patient plaintiffs, Sara Myers and Steve Goldenberg, have died, but their depositions were videotaped while they were still alive.
When Verraine called 911 to report Asia’s death, police arrived at their house and, after determining that she might have had a role in his passing, arrested her. Any death occurring at home has the potential to be considered a homicide, according to law enforcement officials.
Detective Lieutenant Dirk Budd of the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office described the process of investigating a home death. “First we want to talk to the witnesses if there was anyone in the home. We contact the person’s doctor, who can give us insight into whether or not the person had a health condition that could likely contribute to their death.”
Physicians, mental health professionals, family, and friends may be consulted to determine if the person had been suicidal. “If there was a means of suicide,” said Budd, “forensically we can start to reconstruct how they actually did it, whether it was done by their own hand or someone else had to be there to do it with them. The medical examiner is going to come out and use his knowledge and expertise in determining that.”
If it can be proven that a companion provided the means of suicide, such a procuring drugs or alcohol, or encouraged the individual to commit suicide, then the charge of manslaughter applies, with a possible five to 25 years in prison, even if the motivation was compassion for another’s suffering. But what if a person is in the house with someone who commits suicide and doesn’t try to prevent the death? Is the companion of the suicidal person guilty of a crime?
Attorney David Leven, former executive director of EOLFNY, said the case would depend on whether the companion had provided any assistance or encouragement. “If she had, say, mixed up drugs for him or given him alcohol, then she could be prosecuted. But just her presence, if she was not encouraging or providing a means to die, would not provide a strong case for conviction.”