Thursday, June 19, 2014

Pennsylvania assisted suicide law rarely used

Gus Yiambilis is charged with homicide and causing/aiding in suicide in the carbon monoxide poisoning death of his 59-year-old mother, reported the Bucks County Courier Times.

Yiambilis’ case might be the first prosecution in Bucks County, Pennsylvania for assisting in a suicide, a rarely used felony charge in Pennsylvania. Some legal experts believe the case has the potential to break new ground in the right-to-die movement, which has largely focused on assisted suicide cases involving the elderly, the terminally ill or people with life-altering disabilities.

Katherine Pearson, an attorney and a Penn State Dickinson School of Law expert on legal issues facing older adults, described the Yiambilis case as “extremely rare,” since neither mother nor son was physically disabled or terminally ill, but simply expressed a desire to die.

“Where there was no indication of suffering, physical suffering, or terminal illness, I can’t think of one that I’ve seen,” she said. “There may be a proof problem for the prosecution on that side of the case.”

Nationally, legal experts note that arrests for assisting in suicide are less common than years ago, which some believe signals changing attitudes about end-of-life decisions, despite existing laws that outlaw it in all but five U.S. states.

Statewide, 53 people were convicted of causing/aiding in suicide between 2004 and 2012, according to data from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. The data reflects sentences reported to the commission through its secure Web application.

Most of those convicted — 39 — were sentenced to state prison. Only 10 were sentenced to so-called “restorative sanctions,” non-confinement sentences that include fines, according to the commission.

Assisting in suicide has been a crime in Pennsylvania since 1973 and the law specifically notes that survivors of suicide pacts can be guilty under the statute.

Under the law, a person can be charged in either of two ways: criminal homicide for intentionally causing someone to kill himself by force, duress or deception or, as Yiambilis is charged, for aiding or soliciting suicide. That’s when a person intentionally aids or solicits another person to commit suicide or their behavior causes someone to attempt or commit suicide.

Yiambilis also is charged with homicide, but not under the assisting in suicide law.

Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association executive director Richard Long said that he has not heard of many prosecutions under the law.

“It’s one of those things that a district attorney has to make a determination on regarding the facts and determinations involving a suicide,” Long added.

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