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Man Who Killed His Ailing Mother Freed After 10 Months

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James W. Guthrie Jr. had seen his father die of cancer and swore he wouldn’t let his mother--racked with cancer, pneumonia, emphysema and arthritis--suffer the same way.

He begged the nurses at the La Habra hospital to give the 79-year-old woman more painkillers, even offering them $5,000 to find a way to end her life. They wouldn’t act, so last June, he did.

On Thursday, 300 days after Guthrie used a metal pipe to bash his frail mother, Evelyn, the La Mirada man was set free by an Orange County judge who said the confessed killer acted out of--and deserved--mercy.

Swayed by psychological reports and heart-rending statements by the woman’s doctors, nurses and neighbors, Superior Court Judge Kazuharu Makino sentenced the 54-year-old man to time served, 2,000 hours of community service and a $200 fine.

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Guthrie, who pleaded guilty to manslaughter last month, told authorities that he had wrapped the pipe in tape and a sock “to protect Mother’s pretty face.” When the police snapped handcuffs on him at Friendly Hills Regional Medical Center, the seemingly guilt-ridden Guthrie asked them to “put me in a hole so deep, even the cockroaches can’t touch me.”

Despite the violence of the crime, the punishment seemed to satisfy both sides.

The prosecutor had asked for a state prison sentence of six years, but after hearing the judge’s ruling Thursday, she called the outcome fair. While the act was “extremely barbaric,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Claudia Silbar said she had no doubts that the defendant acted out of mercy.

“I don’t have any bitterness about this decision,” she said. “This was an unusual case and a very difficult decision, and I totally respect [Makino’s] decision.”

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Court records depict Guthrie as a devoted son who had been bruised by the outside world but always found solace and support from his mother. She paid the bills as he tinkered with inventions he hoped would make him a success, and they bolstered each other when throat cancer killed his father in 1979 after three agonizing months in an intensive care unit.

“He pledged to his mother that she wouldn’t suffer like the father,” a psychologist wrote after interviewing Guthrie in jail.

The victim’s doctor recalled that Guthrie “cried the whole time” when he was told his mother was terminal. The cancer that had been removed during major lung surgery had surged back, and her other ailments made breathing a chore. Evelyn Guthrie, a retired school district worker, had long refused life-support machines, perhaps remembering her husband’s final days.

James Guthrie had harsh words for the nurses and doctors who tended to his mother, and he bitterly criticized them for not boosting her medication to ease the pain. He later told a psychologist that he heard the nurses laughing at their ward station and that his anger grew. He brought his mother cold water and tried to comfort her, spending sleepless nights at her side, records show.

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One day, weary and on edge, Guthrie went home and plucked from his workshop a heavy pipe he planned to use in one of his aquarium inventions. He admitted to police that he carried the pipe in his car for three days as he agonized over his mother’s plight.

At dinner time in the hospital June 27, he leaned his mother forward in bed and brought the rod down on her from behind, he told police. Then he stepped into the hallway and told a nurse to call the police.

“You got rid of us both,” he told the nurses. He went back into her room, saw his mother was still alive, and began hitting her again and again before the hospital staff restrained him.

As they held him, he looked at his mother, slumped over in bed, and said, “I am sorry, Mother.” When he realized she had survived the botched attack, he was inconsolable.

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For three days after the incident, Guthrie’s mother remained alive and he was held on suspicion of attempted murder. She died, but the charge was eventually lowered to manslaughter with a deadly weapon, which carries a maximum penalty of 12 years in state prison.

Guthrie spent 10 months in jail as psychological tests were ordered and prosecutors considered how to proceed. He pleaded guilty last month to voluntary manslaughter and was summoned to court Thursday for sentencing.

It was a “comprehensive investigation” of the attacker’s background, emotional state and the lack of any personal gain that led to the downgraded sentence, Silbar said. One psychologist described the defendant as “caring, devoted and very close to his mother” and said he acted out of “overwhelming stress.”

The prosecutor said the wrenching case had left her grappling with the definition of mercy, as applied both by individuals and the state.

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“This crime was committed with absolutely no ill will,” Silbar said. “The whole motivation behind this was to end his mother’s suffering. But we can’t send the message to society that it’s OK to do this.”

Guthrie cried in court and thanked his attorney after the brief morning hearing to decide his punishment. He was expected to be processed and released from jail by nightfall.

“Anyone who has seen someone close to them die of cancer understands this case,” Public Defender Jim Appel said. “How he killed her doesn’t matter. He didn’t do this to hurt her, he acted to end her suffering.”

Guthrie’s life had been grim long before his mother’s health declined, records show. The Kansas native bounced from job to job after a stint as a “dock monkey” in the Navy in the 1960s, he told psychologists. Most of his life, he lived with his parents and doted on his mother.

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He told court-appointed psychologists that he sometimes felt angry at the world. He also said he had been haunted by nightmares of the bloody hospital attack as the weeks passed in jail.


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