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Trial Ordered for Elderly Man Held in Mercy Killing Case

September 7, 1990

ROMULUS, Mich. (AP) _ A 72-year-old man who said love moved him to complete his terminally ill wife’s suicide attempt was ordered Friday to stand trial on murder and conspiracy charges.

Bertram Harper faces mandatory life imprisonment if convicted of conspiracy to murder his 69-year-old wife, Virginia, who died Aug. 19 in the motel room they rented after flying to Michigan from their home in Loomis, Calif.

Mrs. Harper planned her suicide after learning she was terminally ill with breast and liver cancer.

The murder case against Harper rests largely on his telling police he had put a plastic bag over her head and secured it around her neck after a non- lethal combination of pills and alcohol caused her to fall asleep.

The official cause of death was asphyxiation, according to the Wayne County medical examiner’s office.

District Judge Henry Zaborowski ordered Harper tried on one count of open murder - which may be defined at trial as first- or second-degree murder, or manslaughter - and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.

Shanda McGrew, 40, Mrs. Harper’s daughter and Harper’s stepdaughter, flew to Michigan with them and was present at her mother’s death. She is an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.

Zaborowski let Harper return to California under $25,000 bond. He probably will not have to return to Michigan until his trial begins in late October or early November, defense lawyer Hugh Davis said.

Harper, a retired engineer, was asked after the hearing whether he feared spending the rest of his life in prison. ″I don’t think it’s ever going to get to that point,″ he replied. ″But if it comes to that, I’m 72 years old. I don’t have that much time left.″

Hours after his wife’s death, Harper told police they had chosen to come to Michigan because they believed the state had no law making it illegal to assist in a suicide. Under California law, such an act is a felony punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.

Harper cited a 1983 Michigan Court of Appeals ruling listed in a book by Derek Humphry, executive director of the Hemlock Society, which advocates death on demand for the terminally ill. Mrs. Harper was a member of the Eugene, Ore.-based group, which is paying for Harper’s legal defense.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Timothy Kenny argued that the ruling did not outweigh a 1920 case in which the state Supreme Court upheld the first- degree murder conviction of a man who mixed poison for his ailing wife and left it within her reach.

Kenny argued that Harper, in tying the bag over his sleeping wife’s head and not calling police until an hour after she stopped breathing, did more than simply assist in her death.

Under Michigan law, first-degree murder is punished by mandatory life imprisonment; second-degree murder by up to life imprisonment; and manslaughter by up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Davis contends that the murder charge against Harper wouldn’t stand up because the act lacked the key element of malice.

″I don’t think a jury’s going to convict this man of anything,″ he said. I don’t believe an act of love is a crime. This is a case of love and death, and which shall prevail? We believe love will.″

Harper and McGrew said their decision to come to Michigan was not influenced by Dr. Jack Kevorkian, a suburban Detroit pathologist under investigation in the June 4 death of an Oregon woman who used his so-called ″suicide machine.″

In that incident, Janet Adkins, 54, who was said to have Alzheimer’s disease, came to Michigan and met with Kevorkian. He fitted her with an intravenous tube that delivered a fatal dose of heart-stopping drugs after she pressed a button on the device he invented.

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