PASADENA — Even though a 46-year-old physician's assistant has admitted injecting his terminally ill uncle with potent drugs to hasten death, his upcoming murder trial may never explore the ethical and moral arguments of euthanasia.
Instead, the trial of Wallace Cooper, who is set for arraignment in Pasadena Superior Court on June 28, is likely to focus on the more technical questions of whether the drugs Cooper administered last Sept. 1 were the "proximate cause" of his 81-year-old uncle's death.
During three days of preliminary hearing testimony last week, medical experts gave a preview of the trial when they disagreed completely over the cause of Wallace Goulden's death. Goulden, who was bedridden and suffered from congestive heart failure, kidney failure and fluid in the lungs, died in his Pasadena home two hours after Cooper injected the man he was named after and regarded almost as a father with a mixture of morphine and digoxin, according to court records and interviews. Digoxin is a powerful drug that slows down the heart.
Dr. Lawrence Cogan, the deputy medical examiner for the Los Angeles County coroner's office who performed the autopsy, testified that analysis of tissue from Goulden's body revealed the presence of the two drugs. Cogan said the test results, coupled with evidence of a fresh vein puncture on the body, led him to conclude that Goulden died of acute morphine and digoxin intoxication.
But Cogan acknowledged that because the autopsy was not performed until two weeks after Goulden's death--after the body had been embalmed, buried and then exhumed--it would be impossible to determine the precise level of drugs in Goulden's body at the time of death. Thus, some extrapolation was necessary in determining the cause of death.
In a motion to the court, Ron Bain, a Los Angeles attorney representing Cooper, argued that this level of uncertainty required the dismissal of first-degree murder charges against his client. To support his contention, Bain pointed to the testimony of Dr. Robert Bucklin, a well known pathologist, who had told the court that heart disease was the sole cause of Goulden's death.
"The prosecution simply has not established a medical causation between the administering of the drugs and death," Bain said in arguing his motion before Pasadena Municipal Court Commissioner Kevil W. Martin. "We need to know the blood serum levels to evaluate, to estimate the dosage. Without it, everything is speculation."
Martin, citing a less exacting burden of proof in preliminary hearings, rejected Bain's argument and ruled that there was probable cause to bind over Cooper for trial.
"Yes, there is a conflict in the testimony between two experts," Martin said. "But I suspect it is a question for the jury whether or not there were sufficient drugs to cause death."
Cooper, a Pasadena physician's assistant who was enrolled in an advanced training program at County-USC Medical Center at the time of Goulden's death, told sheriff's homicide detectives that he administered the drugs with the intent to kill his uncle, according to court records. Goulden was in extreme pain and had repeatedly asked family members to end his life, relatives testified at the preliminary hearing.
Cooper, who has pleaded not guilty to the charge, said in an interview that he will not recant the admission. He first admitted injecting his uncle to a hospital supervisor, who then contacted authorities. Cooper was later freed on his own recognizance by Martin, who told prosecutors that they would have to have a strong argument before he would set bail.
Shortly after the charges were filed last month, Bain said he would argue that Cooper administered the injection to his uncle out of a humane desire to end his long suffering. He said Cooper's defense would probably center on the argument that "mercy killing" is justified in some cases on moral and ethical grounds.
At the time, Bain said he would either seek to expand case law by contending that a "right to die with assistance" should be recognized by the courts, or argue that the facts of the case mitigate Cooper's actions and he should be charged with a lesser crime.
But after examining the coroner's report and talking to medical experts, Bain said, he concluded that the cause of Goulden's death could not be determined beyond a reasonable doubt. This was partly because Cooper did not tell his supervisor that he had injected his uncle with a potentially lethal dose of drugs until two weeks after Goulden died.
Bain said the inability to measure the precise level of drugs because of the delay in autopsy made it impossible to show proximate cause, a legal requirement which holds that death must be produced by a specific act without the intervention of any other significant factors.