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Daughter Held Hand of Dying Mother

May 9, 1991

DETROIT (AP) _ A woman who traveled to Michigan to commit suicide and end her suffering from cancer wanted her family to help her kill herself, her daughter testified Thursday.

Defense witness Shanda McGrew took the stand on the final day of testimony in the murder trial of her 73-year-old stepfather, Bertram Harper.

In closing arguments, Harper’s attorney said he was a loving husband who shouldn’t be punished for helping his wife’s suicide.

A jury began deliberating Harper’s fate later Thursday. Detroit Recorder’s Court Judge Isidore Torres sent the panel home for the night after an hour. They were to resume deliberations Friday morning.

Earlier, Torres said he wouldn’t ask jurors to determine Harper’s guilt on a first-degree murder charge, after prosecutors said they would seek conviction only on second-degree murder.

Torres also declined to give jurors an option to convict Harper of manslaughter, meaning they must find him guilty or innocent of second-degree murder. Second-degree murder can carry a term of up to life in prison.

Harper, of Loomis, Calif., accompanied his 69-year-old wife, Virginia, and her daughter to Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Aug. 18, 1990. He told police they chose Michigan because its laws didn’t prohibit assisting a suicide.

The family checked into a motel near the airport, and early the next day, Mrs. Harper took an overdose of drugs, drank a coffee liqueur and pulled a plastic bag over her head. An autopsy showed she suffocated.

A teary-eyed McGrew dabbed her nose with a tissue as 14 jurors listened to a tape of a statement she gave police after her mother’s death. McGrew said her mother began planning her suicide as soon as she learned she had terminal cancer.

″It was her feeling she wanted to end her life rather than being on life support or pain medication,″ McGrew said.

She and her stepfather propped her mother with pillows to try to ease the pain and reminisced before Mrs. Harper said, ″It’s time.″

But the suicide attempt hit a glitch when Mrs. Harper became uncomfortable and began trying to pull the bag off her head, McGrew said. Three or four times, McGrew and her stepfather helped her mother remove the bag.

Finally, her mother seemed to fall into a deep sleep. McGrew said she continued to hold her hand.

″At this point, my stepfather pulled the bag over her head and secured it,″ McGrew said. ″We waited. ... I have no idea how much time passed. She stopped breathing. Bob (Harper) looked at me and said, ’She’s gone.‴

In his closing argument, Timothy Kenny, Wayne County assistant prosecutor, told the jury that what Harper did was a ″mercy killing,″ not an assisted suicide.

When Harper pulled the plastic bag down over his unconscious wife’s head, he was crossing a line between assisting a suicide and murder.

Kenny urged the jurors to set aside their sympathy for Harper and reach a verdict based on the law.

″There is no question it was done out of love - there was a tremendous love between them - but that is not a defense,″ he said. ″You took an oath to follow the law.″

But defense attorney Otis Culpepper asked the jury to remember Harper’s deep love for his wife in reaching a verdict.

″This is not a crime of violence. This is an act of love,″ Culpepper said. He called on the jury to dare to cast off outmoded legal concepts and see that justice is done for Harper.

Under cross-examination, McGrew said her mother told her she wanted help in taking her life. Earlier testimony indicated Mrs. Harper tried suicide the same way, but without her family’s help, in 1989 in California.

Derek Humphrey, founder of the Eugene, Ore.-based Hemlock Society, a suicide-rights group, testified Mrs. Humphrey apparently followed a suicide ″recipe″ supplied by his group. They were members of the society.

Humphrey said his book on his wife’s 1975 suicide indicated assisted suicide was legal in Michigan. Under cross-examination, he said a January 1990 article in the society’s newsletter indicated the legal situation in Michigan was ambiguous and prosecution was possible.