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Prosecutors going easier on assisted suicide among elderly

SAN LUIS OBISPO — A park ranger flagged down the elderly driver as he left a lonely beach parking lot 45 minutes past closing time.

George Taylor, 86, had cuts around his neck and on his wrists. He was disoriented, and there was a body in the back seat with a plastic trash bag cinched around its neck.

"Is that a mannequin?" the ranger asked, scanning the car with his flashlight.

Taylor said that it was his wife, 81-year-old Gewynn Taylor, and that she had been dead since the sun went down that December day. He and Gewynn, his wife of 65 years, had a suicide pact, he said, and he had failed.

The incident shocked a legion of friends who knew the couple from their frequent appearances before the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, where for years they had protested a massive sewer project in their tiny town of Los Osos.

It also presented local authorities with a problem that has vexed prosecutors and profoundly troubled families across the United States: Where does justice lie for those who, with no apparent motives other than love, help family members fulfill their last wishes and end their lives?

At least twice in the last year, prosecutors in California decided not to bring charges in similar cases. In other instances, assisted suicide convictions can result in light sentences; on Friday, an Orange County social worker received three years' probation for providing an 86-year-old veteran who wanted to end his life with his final meal: Oxycontin crushed into yogurt.

Both George and Gewynn Taylor were active in community causes. By all accounts, they were constant companions. Until recently, they enjoyed doing chores around a small ranch they owned and visited from time to time. Both also were "shepherds" of the late Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the controversial doctor who practiced and preached euthanasia, according to a court document.

George Taylor, charged with the felony of assisting suicide, pleaded guilty last month.

On Wednesday, San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Ginger E. Garrett sentenced him to three years' probation and two days in jail — time already served after his arrest Dec. 10, 2012, at Montana de Oro State Park. His attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, said his client would continue to receive mental health counseling and has "bonded" with his therapist.

At his brief hearing, the soft-spoken, slender Taylor, a retired Los Angeles firefighter, expressed gratitude but had no further comment.

In an interview, his attorney called the outcome of the case "a perfect storm of wisdom" — prosecutors brought lesser charges, and the judge was lenient.

The couple had disclosed their pact to their daughter and a few others close to them but did not reveal details, Funke-Bilu said.

"They were sharp, bright and warm," he said. "There was nothing wrong with their thinking. They were active people who always promised one another that if they couldn't lead their lives the way they felt they should, then that would be the end of it."

The attorney said medical problems were taking a toll on the couple but declined to elaborate. Neither had a terminal illness, he said, "but terminal diseases weren't the test for them."

It also wasn't the top consideration for Jack Koency, of Laguna Niguel. At 86, Koency was still mobile but had an acquaintance, Elizabeth Barrett, 66, help him end his life. Barrett bought him yogurt, a bottle of brandy and heartburn medication to help him keep the Oxycontin-and-yogurt mixture down.

Prosecutors in the 2011 case said they weighed several factors in recommending probation, including the wishes of Koency's family and "the nature of the crime."

In San Luis Obispo, Jerret Gran, a deputy district attorney, said investigators found no malice in George Taylor's action.

"It wasn't murder," Gran said. "There was an intent to help her kill herself, not an intent to kill her."

Cases filed under California's assisted suicide law rarely go to trial. Legal experts note that jurors might be torn about convicting elderly defendants they see as legitimately bereaved if not entirely blameless.

"Prosecutors find it necessary to uphold the principle of law but recognize the pointlessness of sending this person to prison forever," said Robert Weisberg, a criminal justice expert at Stanford Law School.

Prosecutors who opt for trials take a risk that sympathetic jurors will find reasons to acquit even in cases in which the ending of a life clearly breaks the law. Such findings could set "a kind of cultural precedent," Weisberg said, underscoring the logic of plea deals in such cases.

"It's much better to have a record that people are convicted of a very serious crime but use human, common-sense judgment as to what the penalty is," he said.

Last year, prosecutors in San Diego County decided not to pursue an assisted suicide case against an 88-year-old San Marcos man who sat with his ailing 84-year-old wife as she took her life by eating applesauce laced with 30 sleeping pills and then placed a bag over her head. The district attorney's decision, however, took five months — an agonizing time for Alan Purdy.

"Yes, I sat beside her as she died," Purdy told The Times in an interview weeks after his wife's death. "I didn't want her to feel abandoned. I wanted her to know that I loved her."

Although defendants often are booked on suspicion of murder, as Taylor was, the charge later can be downgraded to assisted suicide. In some cases, prosecutors back off because they can't show how aid was provided.

Last July, an 87-year-old Palm Springs man was released from jail after three days when Riverside County prosecutors decided they couldn't prove he had helped his emphysema-stricken wife disconnect her oxygen supply. Meanwhile, Bill Bentinck was jailed and transferred between facilities in leg irons.

His wife, Lynda, 77, was under hospice care and was suffering unbearably, he told police. He said she had removed her own nasal catheter and refused his offer to get emergency help. The two held hands as her consciousness faded.

Only Montana, Washington and Oregon allow physician-assisted suicide, and then, only in cases of terminal illness. The laws do not allow doctors to aid the suicides of people who have conditions that are debilitating but not life-threatening, such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

In Los Osos, the Taylors had long agreed on assisted suicide, according to Taylor's probation report. For a month or two, they planned the details of their own demise. On Dec. 8, they made a special trip to Montana de Oro, a rugged preserve of tide pools and rocky beaches not far from their home.

Two days later, they returned there, the report said.

They got into the back seat of their Toyota Corolla where, George Taylor told investigators, he helped place the bag on his wife's head and pulled it tight. Then he did the same for himself and passed out.

When he came to, he didn't know how long he'd been out or why he was still alive. But he had come prepared and used a fishing knife to gash his neck and wrists.

He had counted, like his wife, on dying, according to his attorney.

"They had a Plan A and they had a Plan B," he said. "For some reason, Plan B didn't work."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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