A Pennsylvania judge threw out an assisted suicide charge Tuesday against a nurse accused of handing her 93-year-old terminally ill father a bottle of morphine, a decision that brought elation and relief to the defendant and her family one year to the day after his death.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office failed to prove a crime occurred and based its case against Barbara Mancini on speculation and guesswork, Schuylkill County Judge Jacqueline L. Russell said in a 47-page opinion.
"Needless to say, we're all just elated and very happy and very redeemed," her husband, Joe Mancini, told The Associated Press. "Now is the time to heal."
Mancini, 57, of Philadelphia, was charged last summer with giving a nearly full bottle of morphine to her father, Joseph Yourshaw, at his Pottsville home in February 2013 for the purpose of helping him end his life. Yourshaw died at a hospital four days later after a hospice nurse called 911.
The judge said that prosecutors had neither established that Yourshaw intended to take his own life, nor that Mancini helped him do it.
"The evidence does not indicate that Mr. Yourshaw's daughter had solicited, counseled, urged or convinced him to kill himself, nor does the evidence indicate that his daughter injected, administered or actively participated in Mr. Yourshaw's actual ingestion of the morphine," Russell wrote.
A group called Compassion & Choices, which supports aid in dying and other end-of-life decisions, praised the ruling.
"This case demonstrates that the government has no business interfering in families' end-of-life decisions," said Compassion & Choices Chief Program Officer Mickey MacIntyre. "This prosecution could have chilled end-of-life decisions and pain care for millions of future terminally ill patients who simply want to die at home, peacefully and with dignity."
The attorney general's office declined to comment Tuesday, saying prosecutors had not yet seen the judge's decision.
A lower court judge had approved the charges after a preliminary hearing at which police testified Mancini repeatedly told them she gave her father morphine because he wanted to die.
But Russell asked at a hearing last fall whether there was any evidence that Yourshaw took the morphine to relieve pain and did not intend to commit suicide. That was relevant because, under the law, Mancini couldn't be prosecuted if there was no evidence of a crime beyond the statements she gave police.
"The elderly man's statements that he desired to die are not equivalent to expressions of an intent to kill himself," Russell wrote.
Moreover, while prosecutors offered evidence about the level of morphine in Yourshaw's blood, they provided no expert testimony about its significance, leaving unanswered questions about how much he took that day and whether the amount was potentially fatal.
Prosecutors did not even establish — beyond Mancini's own statements — that she gave him the bottle, and charged her based on "little independent investigation, significant hearsay . speculation, guess," the judge wrote.
Barbara Mancini, who has been on unpaid leave from her nursing job, incurred more than $100,000 in legal fees. Compassion & Choices said Tuesday its legal defense fund has raised $20,000 to help defray the cost, while Joe Mancini had taken on extra paramedic shifts to help supplement the family's income.
In fact, Mancini had worked an overnight shift and was asleep when his wife learned of the decision Tuesday. He said her screaming and crying woke him up.
"I saw her on the couch hugging one of our daughters. She was so overcome," Mancini said. His wife handed him a computer and showed him that the case had been dismissed.
"I know that she has an extreme sense of relief and happiness. It's just been a tough year, but today has been a very good day," Mancini said. "A very good day."