Charges of Assisted Suicide Dropped in Morphine Death of Terminally Ill Man

Barbara Mancini gave her terminally ill father a fatal dose of morphine. But did she hasten his death by suicide? Scott Camazine/Photo Researchers/Getty

He was 93 and terminally ill. And he very much wanted to die.

Joe Yourshaw had just the way to do it—a bottle of liquid morphine.

When Yourshaw breathed his last, a year ago yesterday, police were neither convinced the death was natural nor by his own hand with morphine. Rather, law enforcement officials in Pottsville, Penn., believed Yourshaws' daughter, Barbara Mancini, had handed him a fatal dose of the opioid.

Mancini was arrested and charged with assisted suicide – a felony carrying up to a 10-year prison sentence.

After a year-long legal battle, a judge dismissed the Pennsylvania Attorney General's case against Mancini on Tuesday, writing in her opinion that a jury "must not receive a case where it must rely on conjecture to reach a verdict." Prosecutors had a "lack of competent evidence" with a "reliance on speculation and guess serving as an inappropriate means to prove its case," Schuylkill County Judge Jacqueline Russell concluded.

Russell's decision expressed doubt toward perhaps the most integral part of Pennsylvania's case – namely, whether Yourshaw killed himself or simply died from his diseases.

Because prosecutors couldn't establish whether a suicide took place, they couldn't cursorily back up allegations of criminality involving said suicide, Russell wrote. Moreover, what scant evidence existed to decide whether suicide or a crime took place was mainly based on hearsay, further putting into doubt an already questionable case, she said.

Mancini's ordeal, which has cost some $100,000 in legal fees, does not fit the classic example of the legal and ethical conflicts surrounding assisted suicide. Nobody can be certain whether Yourshaw wanted to kill himself and evidence submitted to the court only indicates that he repeatedly voiced a desire to die. Euthanasia advocates say the dismissal will protect end-of-life caregivers from wanton persecution, especially with regard to pain management.

Mickey MacIntyre, chief program officer for Compassion & Choices, whose legal fund will contribute to Mancini's lawyers' fees, said patients under-report pain, doctors under-prescribe pain medications, and that even if prescribed adequately, the painkillers are under-administered. Had Barbara Mancini been convicted, it would have dealt another blow to terminally ill patients and individuals actively dying through hospice care, he said.

The "chilling effect" of a guilty verdict would have meant "dying patients will suffer even more when dying."

Yourshaw had designated Mancini his medical power of attorney. It is still unclear whether Mancini handed her father a partially filled bottle of morphine last February to, as Compassion & Choices statement puts it, "ease his severe pain from end-stage diabetes, heart disease and kidney failure."

However, the generally undisputed facts are that a hospice worker arrived at Yourshaw's house after he drank the contents of the bottle. He was unresponsive. Mancini's supporters claim a hospice worker called 911 and requested Yourshaw be taken to a hospital against his wishes, where he was revived against his wishes.

He was also incensed to learn his daughter had been charged with assisted suicide. Yourshaw, after being administered with more morphine by the hospital, died four days later.

A spokesman for the prosecutor told Newsweek, "We're unable to comment" on the dismissal of the Mancini case but confirmed the office had been"made aware of it," was in the "process of receiving [a] copy," but wouldn't respond "until we receive it, read it, evaluate it."

Robert Rivas, a lawyer in Tallahassee, Fla., representing the assisted suicide support networking group Final Exit, told Newsweek Tuesday's news probably "doesn't advance the nationwide movement very much" because, in his opinion, "it was such a bizarre and absurd prosecution."

Because there has been persistent confusion in court with some painkiller-related deaths -- whether they constitute suicide, assisted suicide, and whether they are legal -- the Mancini case "helps to advance the clarity of that particular legal point," Rivas said.