STOCKTON - A woman was arraigned Friday on a felony charge of assisting her brother commit suicide.
June Hartley, 42, spoke very little at the brief court appearance, where she did not enter a plea. Her attorney is on a pre-planned vacation, so the arraignment was postponed until Feb. 27.
Prosecutors did not ask for bail, saying that she is not a flight risk and has cooperated with the two-month investigation into the death of James "Jimmy" Hartley, 45.
Assisted suicide is illegal in every state but Washington, where voters just passed the initiative in November, and Oregon.
Those two states have strict requirements, and San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Sherri Adams noted that the Hartley case would not likely have met them.
Those states' laws dictate that the patient must have a terminal illness with six months to live, among other requirements. A stroke, which led to Jimmy Hartley's medical woes, is not necessarily a terminal condition, though it can result in drastic physical limitations. Jimmy Hartley suffered two strokes in April 2006, which limited his motor skills and ended his life of playing music. The accomplished guitarist had played with successful bands, including the Studebaker Blues Band, which still has a loyal following.
He moved from Modesto to Lodi a year later, where his family could take better care of him.
Though there seems to be little doubt about his medical troubles - police said his pain medication was no longer working - prosecutors said a law was clearly broken. It's not a happy case for anyone, Adams noted.
"We have a death of someone. We have parents who have lost their son and now their daughter is facing charges of helping him commit suicide," she said.
June Hartley and her parents left the Stockton courthouse without commenting. Attorney Dave Wellenbrock, who appeared with June Hartley in court, deferred comments to her retained attorney, Randy Thomas, who is out of town.
The investigation has been underway since Dec. 8, when June Hartley called police to report that her brother had died in the family's Brandywine Drive home.
Her brother had died of helium asphyxiation, a method of suicide that is considered one of the easier ways to die, according to various Web sites as well as a book allegedly found in the Hartley home. Police and prosecutors allege that June Hartley rented two helium tanks.
The maximum penalty for assisted suicide in California is three years in prison, but June Hartley could face an additional three years under an enhancement alleging that she caused great bodily injury.
Such charges are rare, in part because they don't usually come to investigators' attention, Adams said.
For example, if someone overdoses on pain medication, it's next to impossible to prove if anybody helped with the death.
The matter draws heated debate, and the California Legislature has tried several times to pass bills similar to Oregon's. The most recent attempt failed in June 2007, when the Assembly bill died without enough votes. It still would have had to go to voters.
California lawUnder California Penal Code section 401, "every person who deliberately aids, or advises or encourages another to commit suicide, is guilty of a felony." The law was enacted in 1874.
The U.S. Supreme Court has historically left the assisted suicide matter to states, said John Sims, a professor at University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. He noted two recent cases in which the nation's highest court ruled that the matter is not constitutional.
In 2004, in the case Gonzalez v. Oregon, the U.S. Attorney General tried to go after Oregon doctors who prescribed lethal doses of medication to patients who qualified under that state's law. The Bush Administration argued that the federal government has the power to rescind doctor's prescription rights under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, since the U.S. fights against abuse of controlled substance.
The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in 2006 that the Controlled Substances Act does not limit doctors from issuing prescriptions that follow state law.
Nine years earlier, in Glucksberg v. Washington, the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that assisted suicide is not guaranteed in the Constitution, thus leaving it in the hands of each state to determine.
Even so, the matter is not black and white.
"What is the definition? Do you have to be terminal? Do you have, say, six months to live? Or is pain enough?" Sims asked. "But if you are dependent on a machine for feeding and you tell them to stop, that ends it."
He also noted that though some pain medications can shorten life, it's not considered suicide to prescribe drugs that relieve excruciating pain.