Concluding that recent court decisions allowing assisted suicide apply only to physicians, a Los Angeles Municipal Court judge refused Monday to dismiss felony charges against a man who helped his AIDS-ravaged lover commit suicide last year.
In the first such test of California law since the issuance of opinions by two federal appeals courts, Judge Linda Lefkowitz rejected arguments that the rulings had rendered the state's ban on assisted suicide unconstitutional.
Referring at length to the federal rulings, Lefkowitz hewed to a narrow interpretation, ultimately agreeing with the prosecution that the opinions did not open the door to all forms of assisted suicide involving the terminally ill.
"I read the opinion to stand for no more" than the right of physicians to help terminally ill patients end their lives, Lefkowitz said of last month's U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision.
That means Keith W. Green continues to face prosecution for helping his lover, Los Angeles designer James Northcutt, kill himself in his garage last December.
Northcutt, 54, was in the advanced stages of AIDS and had previously attempted suicide when Green helped him run a hose from his car's exhaust pipe to the rear window. Police later found Northcutt dead of carbon monoxide poisoning in the front seat of his BMW. He had left a suicide note on the kitchen counter top.
In their motion to dismiss the charges, Green's attorneys' wrote of Northcutt: "He could not drive, he could not work, he could not live without pain and anxiety, and he had lost control of most bodily functions. . . . His medical records are filled with references to his desire to die. . . . Given the circumstances, the decision to commit suicide could hardly be described as anything but a rational choice."
Green was originally arrested for murder--on the grounds that he had taken an active role in Northcutt's suicide. That charge was subsequently dropped and Green, 36, is now charged with aiding and abetting a suicide. Green faces up to three years in prison.
In light of the prosecution, attorneys for Northcutt's estate have barred Green from the house he shared with his lover of eight years. The charge also jeopardizes Green's inheritance from Northcutt, because under probate law anyone found to have feloniously killed another is precluded from benefiting from their estate.
Green, who has declined to discuss the case publicly, appeared shaken and red-faced after Lefkowitz issued her decision at a West Los Angeles hearing. His attorneys said they would immediately appeal the ruling to Superior Court. "We're very disappointed," said attorney John Duran.
Northcutt, Duran noted, had asked his doctor to help him end his life--only to have the request refused. "What happens when a physician says, 'No.' . . . Then whose hands is it left in?" Duran asked.
Green's case comes in the midst of an intensifying national debate over right-to-die issues. In the past month, the 9th and 2nd Circuit Courts of Appeals have asserted that mentally competent, terminally ill adults have a constitutional right to hasten their death with a physician's help. The decisions all but assure that the matter will be taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court within the next year.
As to whether the rulings apply beyond physician-assisted suicides, USC law professor Erwin Chemerinksy said the opinions contain language that could support both narrow and broad interpretations. The federal decisions focus on physician-assisted suicide but the reasoning they offer could also be extended to other situations.
Lefkowitz's "ruling seems technically correct," Chemerinksy observed. "It follows the letter of those decisions."
But he added, "I'm not sure it follows the spirit of those decisions. I'm not sure what is gained by prosecuting someone in that situation. There's nothing the physician could have provided that the lover couldn't have provided in this instance. "
Kathyrn Tucker, a Washington attorney who represented the right-to-die advocates in both federal cases, said the appeals opinions did not fully support a dismissal in a case such as Green's.
"That judge probably did the right thing," Tucker said of Lefkowitz. "Because I don't think those decisions can be read to extend a right of nonphysicians to participate in a hastened death" except where they are involved in a physician-assisted suicide.