YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Woman pleads not guilty to charges she assisted in brother's suicide

June Hartley, 42, of Lodi pleads not guilty in the suicide of her brother Jimmy Hartley, 45, a well-known blues guitarist who'd been in constant pain after a series of strokes.

February 28, 2009|Steve Chawkins

A Lodi woman pleaded not guilty Friday to charges that she assisted in the suicide of her brother, a blues guitarist who was well-known in the Central Valley.

Jimmy Hartley, 45, had been crippled by a series of strokes and other health problems. In constant pain, he had pleaded with his sister for help in killing himself for nearly a year, according to Randy Thomas, June Hartley's attorney.

"She resisted until the pain and anguish became unbearable for James and no other resources would work," Thomas said Friday in a written statement.

"Mercy, not a crime, was the result."

The arraignment at San Joaquin County Superior Court in Stockton came two days after the hot-button issue of assisted suicide flared again nationally.

On Wednesday, four people connected with Final Exit Network, a prominent assisted-suicide group, were charged in the death of an ailing 58-year-old Georgia man who allegedly ended his life by inhaling helium while under a plastic hood.

According to prosecutors, Hartley died much the same way. A helium tank bought at a Lodi party store was found in the family's home, where he died Dec. 8. Police also found a copy of an instructional book by Derek Humphry, the chairman of Final Exit's advisory board.

June Hartley, 42, holds a master's degree in education from Harvard, her attorney said, and quit a job to care for her brother. Prosecutors said they hoped to negotiate a settlement short of a trial.

"It's a sad case no matter how you look at it," said San Joaquin County Deputy Dist. Atty. Sherri Adams. "It's not our intention to put the family through more pain and suffering."

A big man whose trademark was red high-top sneakers, Hartley worked as an electronics technician, taught guitar and played in the Studebaker Blues Band.

After his strokes in 2006, a portion of his cerebellum was removed to relieve pressure on his brain.

But, according to his attorney, his medical problems only became more severe. His hearing and sight were limited, he was confined to a wheelchair, and he was afflicted with "an excruciating, aggravating pain that could not be addressed by medication or by therapy," Thomas said.

Even so, he was rational and capable of independent decisions as he "begged law enforcement, friends, family and, ultimately, June Hartley to help him commit suicide," according to the attorney.

In addition to his sister, Hartley is survived by his mother and other family members.

Aiding a suicide is a felony in California, and June Hartley could face eight years in prison. Oregon and Washington allow physician-assisted suicide for people judged to have no more than six months to live. In Montana, the state is appealing a judge's decision to allow physician-assisted suicide.

How long Jimmy Hartley would have lived is unknown. Though he was "in a unique prison of unrelenting pain," no prognosis could be drawn from his condition, his attorney said.

To assisted-suicide critics, that's all the more reason Hartley's sister should be tried.

"June Hartley's situation underscores why we need laws to protect emotionally vulnerable people from rash and irreversible decisions, like taking lethal action into our own hands," said Brian Johnston, executive director of the California Pro-Life Council.

"Ultimately, assisted suicide isn't employed for people we care for -- it's employed for people who we no longer wish to care for," said Johnston, who has written a book on the subject.

Advocates on the other side take the opposite view of the charges against June Hartley.

"These laws are out of touch with the experiences of real people," said Barbara Coombs Lee, president of Compassion and Choices, a national group that supports "aid in dying" laws.

"It's a situation that cries out for humane and rational legislation, but lawmakers are unwilling to embrace it."

Assisted-suicide cases reach court only rarely because "juries are usually very sympathetic," she said. "It took [Dr. Jack] Kevorkian flouting the law, saying, 'Please put me in jail. Please make me a martyr!' before the state finally complied."


Los Angeles Times Articles