The morning of March 11, 1997, Denise Oquisanti Kiernan told Harry, her husband of three years, that she was going to take a ride.
They'd been discussing that ride for some time. Denise, a 42-year-old East Hartford native, had lived for a decade with multiple sclerosis. She'd written a letter to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the controversial right-to-die proponent, in which she said, "I am in constant, unbearable pain. This has been a very slow death to me. Please help me."
What happened next was the focus of two trials in which a jury and two judges tried to decide whether Harry had aided Denise in her death, which she accomplished by asphyxiating while sitting in an idling van in the couple's Glastonbury garage.
The first trial ended in a deadlocked jury. At the second trial, a judge ruled that Kiernan most likely had assisted his wife in her suicide, but said that the volunteer firefighter was not a killer. What killed Denise Kiernan, said Judge John P. Maloney, was "a painful, debilitating, incurable disease." Harry was sentenced to three years of probation.
Assisting someone in a suicide — even a person who wants to end his or her life due to severe illness or the specter of it — was against the law in Connecticut in the '90s, and it is against the law still.
Nationwide, only a handful of states allow physician-assisted suicide, and even there, the restrictions are finely drawn — which begs the question echoed in the play and movie: Whose life is it, anyway? At what point does a person have the right to say, "Enough?"
In September, George Brodigan —- Marine, lawyer, judge —- died in his West Hartford home after an overdose of antidepressants and alcohol, police said. Brodigan had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and his condition would only deteriorate. Although such right-to-die cases rarely go to court, Brodigan's son, Bruce, has been charged with assisting him.
The spotlight has long since moved from Harry Kiernan. He married, divorced, and built his computer business, but rarely is the trial — and Denise — far from his mind.
"When you mow the lawn or do other mindless work like that, things go through your head," said Kiernan, who still lives in the condo he shared with Denise. "It's always there. It's probably the only conviction you can get where people feel sorry for the convicted."
He has since turned his attention to organ donation. He has given away a kidney, and part of his liver. "I've said I couldn't save Denise, so I would do something to try to help someone else," Kiernan said. He and others are starting a nonprofit organization to encourage living organ donation.
As for the Brodigan family, Kiernan says: "I don't want to know the details. Whatever happened was between them, and I don't need to know because I don't need to develop an opinion."
I wish that was our public policy. A decision like this belongs in the family, not in court. So here we go again. And for what?
Courant staff writer and columnist Susan Campbell can be reached at email@example.com.