Phoenicia resident Solane Verraine, having pled guilty to manslaughter in the assisted suicide of her husband, John Owings, Jr., a.k.a. Johnny Asia, was sentenced on February 21 to one to three years in state prison. Ulster County Justice Don Williams said he would urge the Corrections Department to give her full credit for the 15 months she has already served in county jail, and her attorneys said she stands a good chance of being released by this summer or fall.
“The imposition of today’s sentence may well be the most difficult, if not daunting, responsibility on my shoulders in my entire career,” said Williams, before delivering his decision. “It would be easy to follow my heart. It’s tempting to order the immediate release of this defendant, but I cannot violate my oath to uphold the law.”
Owings died at his home in Phoenicia on November 19, 2016, and Verraine has been held in county jail without bail since that day. Williams had previously considered a sentence of either two to six years or three to nine years, due to the complexity of the case and the evidence presented. For instance, Owings did not leave a suicide note. He did not have a terminal disease and had not expressed suicidal ideation to any medical personnel, although Verraine said he told her he wanted to be delivered from his years of pain and illness. Other individuals had reported hearing of his wish to die, but those reports had also come by way of Verraine in the period preceding his death. However, one of Verraine’s attorneys, Kevin Harp, said he had provided captures of Owings’ Facebook page regarding the story of a couple who had engaged in an assisted suicide some months before his death.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Michael Kavanagh requested the one- to three-year sentence, arguing against a more lengthy incarceration. He cited new evidence from hospitals that showed Owings had suffered for over five years with a variety of diagnoses, including severe alcoholism, Lyme disease, post-traumatic stress disorder, a spinal condition known as spondylolisthesis, and a disease that causes deterioration of muscle fiber. “He was spiraling,” said Kavanagh. “He was falling down, he had broken ribs.”
Kavanagh also pointed out that, although Verraine had initially told police she had come home and had found Owings dead, when they questioned her closely, she quickly admitted that she had assisted in his death. “When EMS arrived,” he said, “they found her on the ground lying next to him. When the paramedic expressed suspicion, almost immediately she said, ‘I have to be honest. He killed himself.’” Previous reports stated that she then confessed she had saved and crushed up a large quantity of medications, which Owings consumed with alcohol.
“She acknowledges what she did,” said Kavanagh, “and that this is an extremely serious case. Other avenues might have been chosen to turn his life around, and he might still be here.”
Harp said Verraine has discussed her actions extensively with him and with attorney John Ingrassia. “She regrets her actions,” said Harp, “and understands they were legally and morally wrong. She has indicated that her period of incarceration has been a period of spiritual deepening, of renewal and growth.”
Ingrassia pointed out that given the goal of sentencing as a deterrent, it seemed clear that Verraine needed no further punishment to make her realize her error. “My client understands why people can’t do what she did, and that there were other options, including removing herself from the situation” instead of aiding her husband in accomplishing his stated desire.
“In my 28 years as an attorney, in both defense and prosecution, this is one of the most difficult cases I’ve encountered,” said Ingrassia. “I’ve spent a great deal of time visiting my client. As bizarre as it might seem, her actions came from a deep-rooted sense of love.”
Williams asked for confirmation that the District Attorney’s office had found no evidence of malicious intent, animosity, or prospect of financial gain. “We made every attempt to find possible motives,” replied Kavanagh, “but we found nothing. She had nothing to gain.”
Verraine, 63, short and slender, with long brown hair, was wearing an orange jumpsuit and shackles. She stood in silence throughout the session, except when the judge asked if she wished to make a statement. She said she would prefer to let her lawyers speak for her.
Before sentencing, Williams made a lengthy statement weighing the aspects of his decision, saying, “I have struggled and labored from the outset to early this morning and right now, to discern a just and fair sentence.” He observed that the lack of “an evil state of mind” accompanying assisted suicide makes it different from every other crime. “I’ve weighed the punishment and its impact on the community and how society foresees assisted suicides. Many people have sent me letters asking for leniency, people with strong opinions about the law against assisted suicide. But legislation should not come from the bench. A decision was made to take a life, assisted and administered by another person without the participation of medical professionals or mental health experts to ease the pain or guide the decision. That cannot be allowed. This sentence will ignite a deeper and more thoughtful discussion at the New York State legislature to discuss this issue so no other court will have to face this difficulty.”
There are seven states that permit doctors to give lethal medications to terminally ill patients who wish to commit suicide. New York is not one of them. All states in the U.S. forbid assisted suicide by any individual other than a physician, and no state permits physician aid-in-dying unless the patient has a terminal diagnosis.
Ingrassia said Verraine will be in county jail for a few more weeks until the Corrections Department transfers her to an as yet unspecified state facility. A short time later, she will be eligible for review as to whether she should be released. When asked what he thought of the sentence, Ingrassia said, “The judge has been very fair in all the conferences and proceedings. I think it’s a just sentence.” ++