Did nothing, still guilty: the dilemma of the suicide ‘assistant’

I have often heard the refrain in popular books and videos, “If you are just there, but don’t participate, you are not committing a crime – as long as the person commits the final act themself and you don’t touch anything, you’re fine.”

Fine, it seems, in some cases. Not so fine for people who are subsequently arrested.

Being less familiar with American law than British law, my caveats were generally directed to people this side of the Atlantic where, under a clearly defined set of rules and circumstances from the Director of Public Prosecutions, you might probably be let off either lightly or completely. But only after the trauma of being arrested.

Then I came across this case where there is no doubt that the police had little choice but to arrest a man.

88-year-old Californian, Alan Purdy, had been caring for his wife through many years of sickness. Margaret “Jo” Purdy (84yrs) had tried before to end her life by suicide but he had saved her. This time she succeeded. She did it herself, but with her husband in the room. She mixed 30 sleeping pills with apple sauce then she put a  bag over her head and died.

Margaret suffered from Sjoren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that can damage vital organs of the body. Recently, pancreatitis and three fractured vertebrae made her health situation even more precarious. The pain was becoming unbearable. Margaret and Alan were known as an affectionate and devoted couple. No sinister motive. She even left a suicide note. But after his wife’s death, the 88-yr-old war veteran was led off to a police cell in handcuffs.

Some say his crime, even though it seems Margaret had done everything herself, was telling the truth, that he was at her side. He hadn’t gone for a walk. He wasn’t upstairs, or out in the garden, or walking a dog. “Yes, I sat beside her as she died,” he said. “I didn’t want her to feel abandoned. I wanted her to know that I loved her.”

Rather like English law it seems, California makes assisting, aiding or abetting a suicide a criminal offence. (Section 401 of the Californian Penal Code makes: “Every person who deliberately aids, or advises, or encourages another to commit suicide, [is] guilty of a felony.”) Unlike English law however, it is quite clear about what is meant by ‘aiding or abeting.’

There is, of course, a difference between these and ‘assisting.’ One who engages in “conduct that is an element of the charged crime” is a perpetrator, not an aider and abettor. (People v. Cook (1998) 61 Cal.App.4th 1364, 1371 [72 Cal.Rptr.2d 183].)

The factors that can determine whether a person is an aider and abettor include:

  • presence at the scene of the crime,
  • companionship, and
  • conduct before or after the offense.
    (People v. Singleton (1987) 196 Cal.App.3d 488, 492 [241 Cal.Rptr. 842] [citing People v. Chagolla (1983) 144 Cal.App.3d 422, 429 [193 Cal.Rptr. 711]]; People v. Campbell (1994) 25 Cal.App.4th 402, 409 [30 Cal.Rptr.2d 525].)

California (or the District Attorney, at least) still has to decide what to do about Alan Purdy. For the time being, he has been releasd on bail of US$15,000 – for his son was able to come up with that amount. Twenty years ago, Californians voted 54% to 46% against an assisted-suicide measure. There’s plenty of community support. But none of that stopped Alan Purdy being thrown in a jail cell.

It is far too easy to assume that you can get away with providing companionship and nothing more. To be there with a loved one if that person decides to bring his or her life to a close. Rather than trust to luck, or trusting to someone who got away with it and thinks everyone will, we would offer three pieces of advice:

  1. Know what the law is in the land where you live. Or the land where you, or a loved one, maybe intend to die. Know what the possible consequences are for breaking it.
  2. If, out of a personal moral choice, you decide to break the law, try not to get caught.
  3. If you decide to lie, think about how you will feel living with that for a long time, and not being able to tell anyone.

USA Today report
LA Times
Deseret News
Legal resources: California Penal Code

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