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Man, 75, May Face Charges in Mercy Killing of Wife

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The district attorney is deciding whether to file criminal charges against a 75-year-old retired Navy officer who says he acquiesced to a plea from his terminally ill wife to help her commit suicide.

Tom May has been jailed since Saturday in the death of his wife, Hazel, 69, who suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease. May was arrested after police responded to a call from other family members.

“He was calm, not hysterical at all,” said San Diego Police Lt. Jim Duncan. “He knew what he had done and why. He said he and his wife had discussed it and decided what they should do.”

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Police and neighbors said May had been tending his wife for months as her condition worsened. At the end she was bedridden, communicating through scribbled notes, and being kept alive through a feeding tube in her stomach, authorities said.

“I talked to him just a few days ago and told him he looked very tired,” said neighbor Stanley Cox. “He said, ‘I don’t get much sleep anymore. She needs so much help.’ He cared for her day and night.”

Police said they found cryptic notes in the tidy, well-furnished home in the affluent Del Mar Heights neighborhood of San Diego indicating that Hazel May wanted to die.

Her husband gave her an overdose of her medication and then carried her into the family car in the garage and started the engine, police said.

A spokesman for the county medical examiner said the office has not yet determined whether Hazel May died of the drug overdose or of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Tom May apparently hoped to commit suicide and sat beside his wife for hours as the garage filled with fumes, police said. After passing out, May awoke and spoke by telephone to his grown children, who hurried to the home and called police. Handcuffed by police, May wept while being taken to jail.

Duncan said the Mays’ children--two sons and a daughter--were “very supportive” of their father and would have preferred that he not be taken to jail.

California law makes it a felony to assist in a suicide. Family members are expected in California to get aid for a family member attempting to kill himself or herself, legal experts said.

Although the law may be clear cut, the task of prosecuting an assisted suicide case against a family member is daunting.

“These are nightmare cases for prosecutors,” said Justin Brooks, executive director of the Institute for Criminal Defense Advocacy at California Western School of Law in San Diego. “The defendants are very sympathetic. It is very hard to get 12 people on a jury to convict an old person of trying to end the horrible misery of someone they’ve been married to and loved for 50 years.”

Lou Gehrig’s disease is an incurable condition that afflicts the nervous system. The victim suffers spasms, gradually becomes paralyzed and may become unable to talk, swallow and ultimately, to breath. The disease is not known to affect the mind.

Neighbors have rallied around Tom May and his legal plight.

“Tom never complained,” said Bonnie Longenecker. “He’s a wonderful, friendly man. It would be terribly wrong to have him incarcerated. If only he had told us he needed help with his wife, we could have given him some relief.”

By law, May must be arraigned by Thursday or be released, at least for the time being.

A spokesman for Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst said if May is released this week, charges could be brought later after further investigation.

Although San Diego County has had cases of murder-suicide involving spouses, court officials could not recall another “mercy killing” case in which prosecutors had to decide whether to seek criminal charges.

“At 75 years old, any jail sentence could be a death sentence,” said Alex Loebig, supervising attorney for the high-profile homicide unit of the San Diego public defender’s office. “But the law makes no allowances for ‘invited death.’ ”

The May case appears to fit a national pattern that worries specialists in geriatric care.

Murder-suicide among the elderly is increasingly common in the United States, possibly claiming 1,000 people a year, according to a study by the Institute of Aging at the University of South Florida. The most common kind of murder-suicide among the elderly involves a husband who is “dependent-protective” of a sick wife and possibly sick or psychologically depressed himself, the study found.


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