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Yes, it's murder

Words almost failed me when I read this story, but pretty quickly I found some words.

Short version: Elderly woman has a fall and is paralyzed and also in a lot of pain. (Yes, we have a problem with pain management in our medical system.) She keeps saying she wants to die. Her also elderly husband gets a gun, loads the gun, kisses her one last time while she's asleep in the hospital, and shoots her dead. He also tries to kill himself, but the gun jams, so he's still alive. After long pondering, the prosecutor declines to prosecute (we're not talking recommending mercy upon conviction but declining to prosecute altogether) and issues an ethically and legally incoherent statement saying that the man isn't a murderer and that's why he isn't prosecuting but that the refusal to prosecute is in no way an endorsement of assisted suicide.

This is in Nevada, by the way. Not in Belgium, Switzerland, or even England.

Yes, Mr. Woodbury (that's the prosecutor), this is murder, and yes, your refusal to prosecute does functionally endorse not only assisted suicide but also euthanasia.

Herewith some choice quotes:

Woodbury, who took office a year after the shooting occurred, cited evidence that Frances Dresser expressed a desire to no longer live, her family's request that her husband not be prosecuted and William Dresser's medical condition as reasons that a prosecution isn't warranted.

So the fact that she expressed a desire to die is being treated as legally relevant. Think that has something to do with euthanasia and assisted suicide, maybe?

In an interview, Woodbury said his ultimate goal was to achieve a "just result."

"I didn't view there being any component of evil to his act of killing," Woodbury said. "We can talk about judgment, and morally whether it was a right or wrong decision, but I didn't view any aspect of it as evil. That's truly the component you need to have in a murder case is an evil motive and we didn't have that."

Um, no, sorry, false, Mr. Woodbury. It is possible to commit murder without an "evil motive." If Miss Smith thinks that babies go to heaven and kills a bunch of babies because she thinks it's such a happy thing to send them to heaven without sin, that's still murder even though her motive is to send babies to heaven. This ought to be Criminal Law 101 stuff. And if the absence of an "evil motive" means you haven't committed murder, then no euthanasia whatsoever can ever be murder.

Woodbury also said his decision to seek a dismissal should not be interpreted to mean assisted suicide is acceptable. Rather, the facts of this specific case justified the decision, he said.

"We also wanted to be very cautious to not set a precedent that assisted suicide was tolerated in Carson City," he said. "My role as a prosecutor is not to make the law or those type of policy decisions. It's up to the Legislature to take that kind of act."

You wanted to be very cautious? Newsflash, Mr. Woodbury, you weren't being very cautious!

Let me point out that assisted suicide was functionally legalized in England by the prosecutor's office by issuing "guidance" stating that they would not prosecute in cases where such-and-such conditions applied. That is functional legalization. Woodbury is just one step short of that because he's leaving the element of uncertainty in place, but it should be pretty easy to extrapolate other circumstances where his heartstrings would also be tugged at, where he would conclude there was no "evil motive," and where he would also decline to prosecute. Vulnerable people in his jurisdiction just became that much more vulnerable.

Dresser, who was released from jail shortly after his arrested 18 months ago, is suffering from advanced-stage prostate cancer. His treatment costs about $64,000 a year, a cost that would be borne by the state if he were to be found guilty and imprisoned, according to Woodbury's motion.

So the prosecutor took that into consideration?? The cost of treating a person if he's imprisoned?

"My grandmother was strong-willed, vibrant, curious about the world, charming, perceptive, very funny, and smart," her eldest grandchild wrote, according to court documents. "She loved nature. She loved to tap her feet to good music and hold her great-grandchildren close to her. It is impossible to imagine her living without those pleasures, without her basic human dignity, and in a state of constant physical pain."

This is straightforward assisted suicide talk and euthanasia talk. There is absolutely no distinction between this sort of talk of the patient's having no "basic human dignity" and about its being "impossible to imagine her living" in such-and-such a state and the Hemlock Society's propaganda. In fact, if you told me that this grandchild belongs to Hemlock, I'd believe you immediately. He's certainly doing their work for them, anyway.

"William Lyle Dresser killed his wife, but he is not a murderer," Woodbury wrote in the motion. "He saw his wife of 63 years immobile in a hospital bed, paralyzed from the neck down, suffering with no hope of improvement, facing a short existence not remotely resembling a life she cared to live. So he ended that life. And he ended that suffering."

Well, thanks, Mr. Woodbury, we'll bear that in mind the next time someone is suffering. We'll just shoot him in the chest and end that suffering.

A judge can actually force the prosecution to proceed:

Judge John Tatro will decide whether to accept the motion or pursue prosecution.

I can perhaps understand recommending clemency at the sentencing stage in view of the murderer's age and feebleness. But that should be strictly distinguished from the idea that he didn't commit murder because he was committing a "mercy killing." So-called mercy killing is still murder, and the lives of those who are suffering are devalued by saying that it is not.

Woodbury is wrong. Dead wrong. Mr. Dresser is a murderer. A confused murderer. A wanna-be-merciful murderer. An elderly murderer deserving of pity. But a murderer nonetheless. We must never lose sight of that, or we lose sight of the value of the lives of those who are suffering. They need help and care, not a lethal injection or bullets to the chest.

Comments (17)

With a name like Frances Dresser, he probably confused her with Fran Drescher and that may have played role in his decision to not prosecute.

At 88 it's possible that he is suffering to some degree from dementia and with advanced prostate cancer perhaps he has not long to live. Since the sheriff also supports the decision it's possible that more is going on here. Legal proceedings against individuals shouldn't be purely symbolic.

Al, nobody says he didn't know the nature and consequences of his actions. Very much to the contrary: The explicit reason being given for not prosecuting is that he _did_ know what he was doing and did it _because_ he knew what he was doing. And the prosecutor endorses his reasons, too. She was left with "a short existence not remotely resembling a life she cared to live. So he ended that life." You know, a life unworthy of life.

Prosecution _certainly_ has important symbolic purposes. To say that it shouldn't be "purely" symbolic is to pretend that the symbolism can, in this case, be removed from the actual facts of the matter. Certainly an _innocent_ person shouldn't be prosecuted in the name of symbolism. That would be vile. But prosecuting a person guilty of murder is _definitely_ one of the ways in which society rightly shows disapproval of his action and its valuation of the life of his victim. In contrast, Woodbury is *explicitly stating* that the victim's life wasn't worth living and that this is *why* he is not prosecuting.

Not good at all.

By the way, I thought the sheriff's comments were distinctly ambivalent. It sounded to me like he felt he had to say something supportive about the prosecutor, felt he wasn't supposed to second-guess his decision, and felt rather sorry for the prosecutor, having the burden of the decision, but that he had some apprehensions that this might, y'know, signal that it isn't really so bad to empty a few rounds into your wife's chest as she lies sleeping in a hospital bed.

Thanks for that, Al. It shows that my characterization in the main post is accurate and that the quotations from Woodbury were not taken out of context. In fact, there's even more there, but I don't have time to type it out now.

At 88 it's possible that he is suffering to some degree from dementia and with advanced prostate cancer perhaps he has not long to live.

Mental disease or defect would be a defense in a trial. It is not a reason to get out of a trial.

External circumstances and hardships are a reason for clemency at sentencing, not a reason to skip the trial.

Legal proceedings against individuals shouldn't be purely symbolic.

Deciding not to initiate legal proceedings against individuals shouldn't be, and aren't, purely symbolic, either. Lydia's right about how this sets precedent.

*"and isn't, purely symbolic"

I can grammar good.

From the motion to dismiss, linked by Al. The prosecutor lists this as one of the factors that make the decision whether to prosecute difficult. Emphasis mine.

First, the method by which Mr. Dresser decided to end Mrs. Dresser's life is extremely troubling. Introduction of a firearm into this community's hospital could have transformed this event from an isolated tragedy into a widespread catastrophe in the blink of an eye. Mr. Dresser's reckless decision placed innocent lives in danger. There is some comfort to be taken in the fact that this did not materialize. Mr. Dresser obtained access to Mrs. Dresser's private room without the firearm being detected. He shot Mrs. Dresser without endangering anyone else.

This really takes one's breath away. The phrase "placed innocent lives in danger" is just...astonishingly tone deaf. This man shot his wife to death while she slept, and the prosecutor is particularly exercised because the "introduction of a gun" into the hospital might have endangered "innocent lives." You know, besides the innocent life he deliberately took! Then the prosecutor heaves a sigh of relief. Fortunately, "this" (someone else's getting hurt) did not materialize. Mr. Dresser shot Mrs. Dresser without endangering anyone else.

I'm just gasping at that.

The motion to dismiss also confirms what I said in the main post. Woodbury twists the meaning of the phrase "malice aforethought" to mean that an "evil motive" is required for murder, so anything that does not involve an evil motive is not murder, as it does not involve "malice." This is an obvious confusion concerning what constitutes malice in the legal sense relevant for murder. Whatever Woodbury may say to the contrary, this interpretation of the concepts of "malice aforethought" and "murder" *would indeed* mean that any act of euthanasia motivated by the desire to end suffering, or indeed any killing motivated by what the killer intends as benevolence toward the one killed, cannot be murder. The motion states that these circumstances are absolutely unique to this case and that this is why it will not set any precedent in favor of euthanasia generally, but that is simply not true and not logical given the motion's *own argument* concerning the meaning of "malice" and the necessity of an "evil motive" for murder. The motion makes it quite clear that, absent an "evil motive," a killing is a matter of morality but *not* a matter of law to be prosecuted under the law.

I'm beginning to suspect that Woodbury is not as bright as he thinks he is. Moreover, his comments about "ending that life" (which appear in full in the motion to dismiss) indicate that he is moved by that sort of cloying pity and sentiment, divorced from an understanding of the natural law, of which Flannery O'Connor wrote:

In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

And Walker Percy:

More people have been killed in this century by tenderhearted souls than by cruel barbarians in all other centuries put together.

And Graham Greene:

"I had meant the story of Scobie to enlarge a theme which I had touched on in The Ministry of Fear, the disastrous effect on human beings of pity as distinct from compassion. I had written in The Ministry of Fear: 'Pity is cruel. Pity destroys. Love isn't safe when pity's prowling around.' The character of Scobie was intended to show that pity can be the expression of an almost monstrous pride.
Legal proceedings against individuals shouldn't be purely symbolic..

As Lydia and Jake suggest, this is nonsensical. It is both inevitable and a very PART of the judicial system in action that it manifest justice in the concrete - that it both achieve just outcomes and that it do so by steps and processes just on their face. It is desirable that justice be seen to be achieved, but to use a phrase like "merely" to describe this manifesting is to misunderstand justice itself and the justice system. There is absolutely no doubt that Dresser did something against the law, and that he did something that the legislature intended to be prosecuted as murder. There is no rational way to say that refusing to prosecute is either in accordance with the intent of the law or with true justice, it is simply a dereliction of duty. It is a decision BY THE PROSECUTOR that, though certainly guilty, this man should not suffer for the crime he committed because the prosecutor decided that the crime wasn't evil. But by doing so he usurps both the legislative and judicial functions.

If the trial itself was going to be a difficult burden (and this is plausible for someone 88 years old and very ill), it is conceivable to leave Dresser charged, and simply continue and delay and extend pre-trial motions and discovery until he dies. These are, indeed, the arena of prosecutorial discretion.

'He also tries to kill himself, but the gun jams..."

Right, blame the gun.

Something is going on here. Carson City is a small town and strange things can happen in small towns. A couple of years ago there was a murder in a small town down the road from me. The DA cut a plea that was basically a slap on the wrist. There was outrage and the judge refused to accept the deal and the perp got 12 years. If the motion flies it's likely the prosecution read the community right. The gun in the hospital is troubling even though it's a .22. Normally you'd do a plea bargain with probation (which would also set a bad precedent of sorts) I would guess but the family seems united and that may have been rejected.

BTW, the aging of our prison population is becoming a nightmare for jurisdictions. This matter could be a budget buster for the city (and state if he was imprisoned).

If the motion flies it's likely the prosecution read the community right.

Well, that says something about the community, and not something good.

The gun in the hospital is troubling even though it's a .22.

Sounds like the prosecutor. Someone innocent could have gotten killed! Wait, what?

I would guess but the family seems united and that [plea bargain option] may have been rejected.

Maybe true. The family will accept nothing less than a refusal to prosecute or some other expression of terminal non-judgementalism on the part of the community for the killing of the mother. Which also says something very sad.

I swear, if Dresser had brought the gun into the hospital and shot a rat, Woodbury and Al would be just as upset as they are that he brought it in and shot his wife. Because the only thing that really seems to get them exercised is the messiness and dangerousness *to everybody else other than the intended victim* of having and discharging a gun in the hospital.

even though it's a .22

Actually, .22 is an ideal weapon for shooting someone in the head. My father (ex-cop at various levels) had a case (suicide or murder, can't remember) involving a .22. Turns out .22 has enough energy to pierce the skull, but not exit the skull. The result is it tends to ricochet in the skull causing it to really do a number on the brain. A .22 also has a very soft report compared to most handgun rounds that are commonly carried. As a murder weapon in a case like this, it's about as good as it gets.

Well, that's good to know. I guess.

Mike, it's not that clear cut. I used to know a woman whose job involved rehabilitating the newly blind for the state. Failed suicide attempts with small caliber handguns made up a significant number of her clients. Sometimes the shot is a clean in and out.

Lydia, I find the failure to charge him troubling but setting no precedent. I'm just curious about the back story.

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