(PHILADELPHIA) — Barbara Mancini, the Philadelphia nurse who is being charged with assisting in the suicide of her 93-year-old father, is pinning her hopes on Pennsylvania’s attorney general to drop felony charges that could send her to jail.
Mancini, 57, is alleged to have given her ailing father, Joseph Yourshaw, a lethal dose of morphine to hasten his death.
She’s charged with “recklessly endangering another person” and “aiding suicide,” according to the criminal complaint, obtained by ABC News.
The case hinges on whether Mancini gave her father the morphine to help relieve his pain, as she claims, or to help him commit suicide. A hospice nurse at his home in Pottsville, Pa., reported her to police.
Yourshaw reportedly was taking prescribed morphine for a variety of painful illnesses: end-stage diabetes, heart and cardiovascular disease, stroke, kidney disease and arthritis. The state must prove that Mancini intended to help her father die.
On Thursday, Mancini appeared at a preliminary hearing in the case in Pottsville, a central Pennsylvania town of 14,000, to make way for an arraignment. The defense attorneys are expected to file a motion to dismiss and if that fails, there will be a trial.
The advocacy group that is supporting Mancini, Compassion and Choices, has called the charges “a grave injustice” and say it is likely to go to trial.
“The legal bar is pretty low,” said the group’s spokesman Sean Crowley.
Mancini is being charged under a Pennsylvania state law that makes it illegal to assist in suicide.
Police say that on Feb. 7, Mancini told the officer who arrived at the scene “that her father had asked for all of his morphine so he could commit suicide and she provided it,” according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “She further stated that he was on hospice care, was already dying, and did not want to be taken to the hospital or treated.”
Mancini’s lawyer, Frederic J. Fanelli, was unavailable for comment because of a court gag order. But beforehand, in a teleconference on Wednesday sponsored by the advocacy group Compassion and Choices, he said she handed the medication to her father to help ease his pain, but never intended to help him die.
“Barbara did not, would not, would never hand medicine to her father with the sole purpose — or with even a remote purpose — that he was going to intentionally end his life on her watch,” he said. “It’s ridiculous, it’s abhorrent that they would even say that.”
“Her only intention was to see her father get relief from his pain,” he said. “His body had failed him, his body had quit working, but mentally he was there.”
Compassion and Choices has called for Attorney General Kathleen Kane to drop the case against Mancini, saying the state law is unconstitutional. In an editorial in the Harrisburg-Patriot News, they cite two Supreme Court rulings that give dying patients the Constitutional right to pain medication: Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill.
Lawyers for Mancini say that her father was unresponsive after the morphine dose, but did not die. He lived for four more days at the hospital, where he received normal doses of the medication, which are typically administered for pain, and died, they said.
“Barbara was visiting her 93-year-old father who was terminally ill, which was why he was receiving hospice care and he was in great pain,” said Compassion and Choices spokesman Crowley. “He had gotten morphine prescribed by [the] hospice and he drank some morphine when she was present. The state alleges she handed it to him.”
Crowley said that the Supreme Court ruled that patients like Yourshaw can get “as much pain medication as needed, even if it advances the time of death.”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Kane’s office was asked to prosecute the Mancini case by the Schuylkill County District Attorney’s Office because of a potential conflict of interest, “a common request in small counties.”
Dennis Fisher, a spokesman from Kane’s office, said that the court had issued a “gag order on both sides” and would not discuss the case.
According to the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, the state’s law, forbidding a doctor “or anyone else” to assist in suicide, was left intact by the 1997 U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
Washington v. Glucksberg and Vacco v. Quill allowed states to continue to block laws to legalize physician-assisted suicide.
“One thing is for sure,” said Michael Ciccocioppo, the federation’s executive director, “People in pain have a right to relieve their pain and we don’t have a problem with that. But the same Supreme Court decision … also upheld assisted suicide laws and the rights of the states to say it’s not legal. We stand by that to the end.”
But even he acknowledges that the Mancini case is unclear because of conflicting reports. “Who knows what really happened?” he said.
“If a person beyond a reasonable doubt committed assisted suicide, justice needs to be served and the law needs to be adjudicated,” said Ciccocioppo. “But in a case like this one, which is so murky, unless there is real evidence to corroborate the charge, it’s hard to see how this would go all the way through. But if she really did do it, that is what the law is for — to prevent people from doing this.”
According to police reports obtained by the Inquirer, on Feb. 7, Pottsville Police Capt. Steve Durkin went to Yourshaw’s home, where he lived with his wife, after receiving a 911 call from the hospice nurse.
The newspaper said the autopsy report shows that Yourshaw had stopped taking all medications. An entry in the hospice journal showed that the family said he told them “that he wants to die.”
Hospice records also showed that Mancini requested a low-dose morphine for Yourshaw’s pain, according to the Inquirer.
The day before police intervened, Yourshaw had fallen. When the hospice nurse, Barbara Cattermole, came the following day to check in, he was unresponsive in bed, according to the Inquirer, and she called police.
The nurse “told me that her client had taken an overdose of his morphine with the intent to commit suicide,” according to the police report. The nurse had reportedly told him that Mancini had given his father the medicine, “at his request so that he could end his own suffering.”
ABC News called Cattermole for comment but she refused.
When an ambulance arrived, Mancini allegedly told paramedics that her father was dying and did not want further treatment, according to the Inquirer. Durkin overruled her.
At the hospital, Yourshaw was revived with Narcan, an antidote for opiate overdoses, and lived for four days, according to the Inquirer. Mancini’s lawyers said that his doctors gave him additional morphine for his pain.
The death certificate says he died of “morphine toxicity,” complicated high blood pressure and heart disease, according to the Inquirer, but an autopsy was not performed. Crowley of Compassionate Choices said that proving that Mancini assisted in her father’s death will be difficult.
“Here, the kicker is, that he doesn’t even die,” he said. “They have to prove that he wanted to commit suicide and she aided him. But keep in mind, he didn’t die and that’s what’s bizarre about the whole thing. He lived another four days after the family prevailed and asked them to please stop treating him against his medical wishes.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
Karen Lehr, KIVI
Josh Friesen, Idaho State Journal