A series of heavy doors slid open, one by one, at the Pima County Jail. And finally I was sitting with 53-year-old Sanford "Sandy" Garfinkel, who had just been sentenced to 16 years in prison for killing his terminally ill wife by holding a pillow over her face.
Was it a case of murder or an act of love? In the eyes of the law, such human complexities don't matter. There is no charge of mercy killing.
Those who support physician assistance in dying — which exists in Oregon, Washington and Montana — argue that the absence of such an option often leads to desperate acts. In Seal Beach last year, after an 88-year-old man walked into a nursing home and shot his wife, who suffered from dementia, the couple's daughter called it a mercy killing. Last week, I spoke to a 90-year-old Carpinteria man who in 2008 ran a hose into his house from an exhaust pipe. He was trying to kill himself and his wife, who no longer recognized family members, but a neighbor saw the hose and the couple was saved. The wife has since died, and her husband is about to complete three years of probation for attempted murder.
In Tucson, Sandy Garfinkel had not asked to be treated any differently than a common killer. Immediately after taking his wife's life in December 2009, he called the police to confess. Then he tried to take his own life with a drug overdose, but he recovered. Garfinkel, a surveyor who was in and out of work and struggling financially while caring for his dying wife, took the prosecutor's offer of a plea to second-degree murder, which carries a prison sentence of between 16 and 22 years.
At the sentencing last Tuesday, defense attorney Kevin Burke called this the tragic story of a loving couple's struggle with an incurable disease. Mary Garfinkel, who suffered from Huntington's disease, had considered suicide, he said, as her condition worsened. Huntington's is a particularly brutal neurological degenerative disorder, and court records indicate that her speech was slurred, she was losing fine motor control, had become incontinent, had a clumsy walk and a swallowing disorder.
Given all of that, Sandy Garfinkel might have asked the judge to go easy on him. But he was his own harshest critic.
"I am guilty for my sins," he said repeatedly through tears, calling himself a coward and apologizing to family members in the courtroom.
A sister-in-law testified that the words "mercy" and "killing" don't belong together and that the taking of lives is God's business, but a granddaughter tearfully called Garfinkel a "good grandpa." She added, "I don't want him to be in prison for 22 years."
Even the judge, Terry Chandler, wept through the proceedings, something I've never seen in a courtroom. Chandler said Garfinkel had made "a bad decision," but the case was complicated. She sentenced him to 16 years, and Garfinkel was led away in shackles.
When we later met in jail, I told Garfinkel I understood how emotionally and physically exhausting it can be to take care of a critically ill loved one. My mother and sister are doing just that with my father. But Garfinkel, who was diagnosed with dyslexia as a kid and with bipolar disorder as an adult, refused to make excuses for what he did to Mary or for his drinking, drugging and hanging in strip joints. He was particularly hard on himself for refusing the help family members had offered with Mary.
"I pushed everyone away."
"I thought I could do it myself," Sandy said. But "I wasn't a good caregiver."
Sometimes after putting Mary to bed, he'd sneak out for a drink, he confessed. The woman he'd fallen in love with at first sight in 1989 was gone, and he couldn't cope.
"Everything became overwhelming for me."
When he decided to kill her, though, did he do it because he thought Mary wanted him to?
"Somewhat," he said. But "it was mostly me being a coward."
On Dec., 9, 2009, with no work to be had, Sandy drank away some empty hours at a bar, then went home and made beef stroganoff for Mary. They ate together and he helped her into bed early in the evening. She was watching a DVD — "It's a Wonderful Life" — while Sandy drank some more. Then he lay down next to her.
"And I did it."
She resisted at first, as he held the pillow over her face.
"Until I told her I was going with her, and she seemed to relax."
Sandy was swallowing pills when he called the police, trying to do himself in.
"I was tired and I wanted everything to stop."
This wasn't, in other words, a clear-cut case of assisted suicide, nor was it simply a crime. It was also a family tragedy. And an enormous number of people out there are struggling to cope with some of the same harrowing issues of disease and decline. If there are any lessons in this, Sandy said, it's to avoid the vices that can cloud your thinking, to acknowledge your own weakness and to accept help.
Earlier, in court, Sandy had said: "I lost my integrity, my humility, my dignity. What I needed most, I wasn't man enough to ask for. I know no one can go through this alone. We all need help."
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