Jury acquits Phoenix doctor in assisted-suicide caseby Michael Kiefer - Apr. 21, 2011 08:31 PM
The Arizona Republic
It's not illegal to commit suicide in Arizona, but it is illegal to help someone else commit suicide.
The question before a Maricopa County Superior Court jury Thursday was whether two members of a national organization had conspired to commit manslaughter in the death of a Phoenix woman who took her own life.
It was the first time a jury pondered the question, and they split their decision.
Lawrence Egbert, 83, an anesthesiologist from Baltimore, was found not guilty of conspiracy to commit manslaughter by aiding suicide in the April 2007 death of Jana Van Voorhis, 58.
But the jury was unable to reach a unanimous decision as to whether Franklin Langsner, 86, a retired college professor from Scottsdale, had committed manslaughter by aiding suicide as one of Van Voorhis' "exit guides," or whether he was guilty of conspiring with Egbert to help her kill herself.
Langsner had no comment. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office said they would retry his case.
Egbert scoffed at the idea of conspiracy, because he and Langsner had never met until they were together in the courtroom.
"I only approved of the case," Egbert said.
Egbert is the volunteer medical director of Final Exit, a national tax-exempt organization with 3,000 members, "supporting the human right to a death with dignity."
Langsner was on his first assignment with the group, and his job was to provide counseling and comfort to Van Voorhis.
Two other Final Exit volunteers, Roberta Massey, 65, of Delaware, and Wye Hale Rowe, 83, of Colorado, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of facilitation to commit manslaughter. They have not yet been sentenced.
"The issue is that the laws aren't clearly defined," said Kristen Wright, a Georgia attorney representing Egbert in the Arizona case as well as in a second case in Georgia. There, Egbert and other Final Exit volunteers are charged with racketeering, advertising to assist a suicide and tampering with evidence. The trial is expected to start next year.
"These aren't roving gang members; they're 80-year-old citizen volunteers," Wright said. "They talk to the person. They counsel them. They were there. It's about dignity and peace."
On its website, Final Exit states that "mentally competent adults have a basic human right to end their lives when they suffer from a fatal or irreversible illness or intractable pain, when their quality of life is personally unacceptable, and the future holds only hopelessness and pain."
According to attorneys and her family, Van Voorhis suffered from mental illness but was not suffering from physical illnesses, a fact kept from the jury.
She contacted Final Exit in early 2007. Massey, her case coordinator, forwarded her application to Egbert, who approved it. Then Massey assigned Langsner and Rowe, a family therapist, as the exit guides. Rowe flew to Phoenix, and she and Langsner went to counsel Van Voorhis at her townhouse.
Van Voorhis had already received a plastic hood from Final Exit, and Rowe showed her how to hook up helium tanks Van Voorhis had bought. They rehearsed the suicide on the afternoon of April 12, 2007. Langsner and Rowe returned that night.
According to Deputy Maricopa County Attorney Patrick Johnson, Rowe said, "Are you sure?" and "As soon as you're ready, pull the bag down."
Van Voorhis breathed in the helium for eight minutes, then nodded off. Rowe made sure she was dead, then the exit guides unhooked the tanks, removed the hood from Van Voorhis' and arranged her body to make it look as if she had died in her sleep. They left the townhouse and threw the tanks and the hood in a dumpster.
As pretense for a neighbor to discover her body, Van Voorhis had written a letter saying she didn't feel well and would the neighbor check on her. Langsner and Rowe forgot to leave the letter on the neighbor's doorstep and instead left it in the townhouse. So Rowe called Van Voorhis' sister from Langsner's phone, saying she was a friend who hadn't heard from Van Voorhis in some time.
The sister found the body on April 15, 2007. Police found a note addressed to Frank and Wye taped to a window, and tracked Langsner by caller ID on the phone call made to the sister.
The question for the jury was whether Langsner and Egbert operated within the law. The prosecution said they had not, and Johnson called them "a doctor and his associates brought together to bring death."
Don Samuel, Egbert's lead attorney, balked at the word "conspiracy" in the charges against the two men.
"(Final Exit) is registered with the U.S. government," he said. "Do you think the Gambino family has a trademark? What kind of conspiracy has a website?"
Langsner's attorney, Antonio Bustamante, called his client "a potted plant," someone who was in the room when Van Voorhis died, but, as it was his first sojourn, did not play an active role.
"The goal is to follow the law and the law says not to aid, so they didn't," Wright said. "She was anxious to do this and she didn't want to wait another day."
Thursday afternoon, the jurors were arguing so loudly in the jury room about Langsner's guilt or innocence that Judge Paul McMurdie was about to end deliberations when they sent a note saying they were at impasse.