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March 29, 2013

You be the sentencing judge: what is a fair and effective sentence of 86-year-old mercy killer?

I thought that, while folks continue to vigorously debate how Colorado prosecutors should deal with mass murderer James Holmes in the comments to this recent post, it would also be interesting to hear how readers might sentence a very different killer due in court today in Arizona.  This USA Today article, headlined "Man charged in 'mercy killing' set for sentencing: 86-year-old World War II veteran said his wife was set to be admitted to a hospital, then a nursing home," sets out the essential of another hard case:

George Sanders appeared frail and tired in the hours after he shot his ailing elderly wife in the head, wrapped in a blanket as he sat being questioned by a detective.

"She never wanted to outlive me and be left at the mercy of someone else," Sanders tells a Maricopa County sheriff's detective in an interrogation recorded the day his wife, Virginia Sanders, 81, was found shot in the couple's home.  "We loved each other so much," Sanders said.  "It was a wonderful life in spite of all the hard things we had at the end."

The 86-year-old was initially charged with first-degree murder for the Nov. 9 shooting of his wife but later pleaded guilty to manslaughter in what attorneys on both sides have called a "mercy killing."

Sanders could face probation or up to 12 1/2 years in prison at his sentencing hearing Friday....

The World War II veteran told authorities his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969, and the couple moved from Washington state to the retirement community of Sun City outside Phoenix about seven years later for the warm, dry climate as she was now in a wheelchair.  "We did a lot of things together, always loved each other," he told the detective, adding that her health began to deteriorate over the last few years.  "I took care of her through that day and night," Sanders said.

Eventually, as his own health deteriorated, he said the couple hired a caregiver.  He said his wife had been diagnosed with gangrene on her foot just a few days before the shooting and was set to be admitted to a hospital, then a nursing home.  "It was just the last straw," Sanders said.  "She didn't want to go to that hospital ... start cutting her toes off."

He said he talked it over with his wife and she begged him to kill her. "I said, 'I can't do it honey,'" he told police. "She says, 'Yes you can.'"

Sanders said he got his revolver and wrapped a towel around it so the bullet wouldn't go into the kitchen.  "She says, 'Is this going to hurt,' and I said, 'You won't feel a thing,'" he said. "She was saying, 'Do it. Do it. Do it.'  And I just let it go," Sanders added.

I have highlighted in this story the sentencing range provided by state law for this crime. Because the Arizona legislature apparently believes that some persons convicted of manslaughter should get a sentence of only probation, and because I have a hard time thinking of too many more mitigated cases of manslaughter, I would likely impose a sentence of probation on Mr. Sanders. But perhaps others have a different perspective on what they think sentencing justice demands in this kind of case.

UPDATE: This report via ABC News has a headline with the ultimate sentencing outcome: "Man, 86, Gets Probation in Ariz. Mercy Killing."  Here is a snippet from the story:

The judge, who complimented the prosecutor for being "courageous" in recommending probation, allowed Sanders to walk out of the courtroom.  Judge John Ditsworth said his sentence of two years' probation was "individualized and tempers justice with mercy."

"It is very clear that he will never forget that his actions ended the life of his wife," Ditsworth said as Sanders stood at a podium, his hands clasped and shaking.  "In this set of facts, there was a perfect storm of individual circumstances which placed Mr. Sanders in a position where had to make a decision," Ditsworth said.  "This set of facts hits close to home for all of us."

March 29, 2013 at 09:43 AM | Permalink


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I would like mercy killings of this sort to have some sort of record by the person killed. But, given his age and probably physical frailties, probation might be warranted here. He should in effect have some sort of house arrest.

Posted by: Joe | Mar 29, 2013 10:34:29 AM

I certainly understand the tragedy of end-of-life care. And we should have much, much more resources for palliative and hospice care, or even assisted suicide under lawful procedure.

But this? This is premeditated murder. Throw the book at him!

Since when did "she needed killin' " or "she asked for it" become a defense to murder?

Posted by: Boffin | Mar 29, 2013 1:56:42 PM

I would say that if you think the prosecutor should throw the book at him you are probably very young, and or, have never taken complete care of someone you love who is dying. This is why a judge should be wise.

Posted by: beth | Mar 29, 2013 7:51:41 PM

These cases are so difficult because both Joe and Boffin are correct. Everyone wants mercy until that mercy starts getting abused. Maybe he just didn't want to take care of her anymore, maybe he stands to inherit. These cases can get complicated fast. As to Beth's comment wise can sometimes be an nice word for gullible.

I don't object to the probation in this case. But I do worry about the signal we send.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 29, 2013 11:07:57 PM

DaB:In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a … →etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB

DjB: I am guilty of being an etc. and thank you , sir , for the invite .

(A) I am just another guy , but still recall the DINO (divorced in name only) couple I interviewed decades ago for a comprehensive report on an alleged disability .

They divorced because all sources of 1+ million dollars of excellent group insurance coverage had been exhausted due to her MS that would not surrender . I am now uncertain of their ages , but believe she was in her late 40s or early 50s . She wore a diaper and needed to roll on floor of living room if to go from sofa to TV set . They were deeply in love with one another .

(B) At age 75½ years young + 10 days, I am blessed with the only lady/woman on this planet who can live with me for over 3 days w/o one of us being dead (per a former ♀ supervisor) and who needs to either predecease my wife or die concurrently with her , preferably in REM stage sleep , via MIs so severe we simply pass ; because I have not the resilience to live w/o her .

That being said , since I am young , but not “very” young , I concur with beth | Mar 29, 2013 7:51:41 PM and speculate that Boffin | Mar 29, 2013 1:56:42 PM IS VERY YOUNG .

Perhaps Mr. Sanders ought to have supplied his wife with ≈ a liter of an excellent good tasting alcoholic beverage of 42-100 proof plus sufficient Seconal (Secobarbital) or Nembutal (Pentobarbital) or both .

He would have avoided a charge/conviction of:
1. use of a firearm ;
2. murder .

I would sentence Mr. Sanders to 3 days of house confinement + life non¯reporting probation . He will continue to be his own warden .

A condition of probation would be a requirement of his mental & physical evaluation before he could remarry .

DJB , Associate Member OACDL
Opining/typing only for me and not the OACDL
As always, Nemo Me Impune Lacessit

Posted by: Anon. #2.71828³ | Mar 30, 2013 5:41:37 AM

There are times I thank God I never became a judge, and this is one of them.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Mar 30, 2013 3:57:20 PM


That makes two of us. I thank God that I am not a judge and also thankful that you are not a judge.

Posted by: albeed | Mar 30, 2013 7:31:45 PM

(I'm not a lawyer, just a scientist)

Well beth and Anon, you would say and speculate incorrectly. As the saying goes, Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I think that's part of why I'm so aghast at what happened here. I'm old enough to know of not-so-long-ago history where judges and the state failed to prosecute murder because the killer was sympathetic or the victim not. And to have seen what sort of social catastrophe that can lead to.

This is a blog dedicated to sentencing Law and Policy. It's not my job, and I don't have a dog in the fight, but I find the topic and questions interesting. Since I find myself far away from public opinion on this one, I'm genuinely curious to learn what experts and scholars in the field think of this case. What is the Law? What kind of Policy is appropriate here?

This guy, as far as I can tell, bumped off his wife because she was expensive and inconvenient. This is not even close to assisted suicide (she could have used the gun herself), or mercy killing (she was not in great pain or near to death). It was plain old-fashioned murder. And he got away with it. (Anyone else notice the towel detail?)

Murder is a wicked and deviant act that needs to be prosecuted and punished severely, both to deter such acts, and to demonstrate social disapproval. In my opinion the prosecutors and judge acted with shameful cowardice in not upholding the law. This event will lead to less respect for the law, poorer treatment for the sick and dying, and a lot more murders.

Posted by: Boffin | Mar 31, 2013 1:19:06 PM

As a condition of probation, do not let him marry again.

Posted by: Liberty1st | Apr 3, 2013 10:10:15 AM

I just want you all to know that when I went to post the last comment the little code word that I had to decipher and type said: LetemGo

Posted by: Liberty1st | Apr 3, 2013 10:11:27 AM

Here's my background - I am a former prosecutor, current defense attorney, and since it was mentioned above, have a BS in Biology and a minor in psychology. I understand the slippery slope issue mentioned above. But this is one time I have absolutely no qualms with the plea and the sentence. Sure, he could have found a less messy way to kill his wife, but they had been together over sixty years. Too many people would have walked away 40 years before. If you don't believe mercy killings are appropriate, then you have the fact that he was charged and convicted. If you believe that this was reasonable, then you have the fact that he went home. And no matter what, he will live out the end of his days without the love of his life.

Posted by: Anna | Apr 5, 2013 9:40:14 AM

Yes, the poor thing, he will have to live on without the love of his life.

Because HE PUT A BULLET THROUGH HER. And for that, it wasn't even a clean shot, further evidence that it was not her idea. (Anyone else notice the towel detail?)

Posted by: Boffin | Apr 5, 2013 11:17:58 AM

Have you every fired a gun? what does the towel have to do with a clean shot? I am not disputing your point about murder, simply the facts you are using to back it up. You mentioned you are a scientist, not a lawyer, or psychologist, or judge. But even as a scientist you know that not every situation is created equally. Otherwise, experiments would not need controls in order to produce results which could be replicated. Real life, and particularly its messy situtations simply does not fit in the boxes we as a society try to place it in. You call the judge a coward for not following the law? What evidence do you have he didn't? Probation was an available sentence for a manslaughter conviction. He gave it to the defendant. He followed the law. He was not the one who pled the case from first-degree murder. If you are upset that it wasn't a first-degree murder conviction, so be it. However, I have seen juries NOT convict defendants even with evidence because they didn't WANT to. It's called jury nullification. Don't worry, I can hear you're next argument - but the prosecutor didn't let the jury decide. Having been there, I can promise you the prosecutor had to weigh that decision heavily. No case is cut and dry in the criminal realm. Even something simply. Every body wants to know why, and why is never an element of the crime. Why is not included in the law, but Why is exactly the reason this case was pled down.

Posted by: Anna | Apr 5, 2013 12:33:34 PM

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