Murder or Assisted Suicide?
Sixty dollars upfront was all it took to convince Kenneth Minor to hold the knife in place while Jeffrey Locker, hands tied behind his back, plunged into it over and over again.
Mr. Minor, 36, who has a history of drug and robbery convictions, says he was approached by family man Mr. Locker, 52, outside a Harlem housing project on July 16, 2009 with an odd request: Mr. Locker asked his help to make his suicide look like a murder, so Mr. Locker’s family would be able to collect the insurance money. Mr. Minor was arrested after he was caught using Mr. Locker’s ATM card, which Mr. Minor was told he could use after Mr. Locker was dead.
As Salon reported, there is ample evidence that Mr. Locker wanted to die. Although Mr. Locker had made a fortune as a motivational speaker, he was deeply in debt. He had given his wife instructions on how to divide and shield their assets “when I am gone” and discussed with his son his idea of making a farewell video. He had searched for funeral information online and had recently taken out a fourteen million dollar life insurance policy on himself for his family. In fact, people have come forward and said he had told them he wanted to be killed. So nobody doubts that Mr. Minor is telling the truth about Mr. Locker’s request.
It’s what happened next that needs to be resolved. And whether what happened amounted to murder.
The trial began on February 17, and while the media touched on some of the law involved it did not analyze the law, or predict Mr. Minor’s chances. We will.
Under New York law, “causing or aiding” a suicide is a form of manslaughter punishable by a maximum of 15 years in prison; there’s also a lesser offense of “promoting a suicide attempt.” According to his lawyers, Mr. Minor has offered to plead guilty to manslaughter, but the prosecution refused, insisting on the murder charge, which carries with it a sentence, if convicted, of twenty-five years to life. New York law prohibits killing someone, even at the person’s request. And the prosecution argues that even if Mr. Minor just held the knife, that was “active participation” that amounts to murder. But under New York law, aiding a suicide is considered an affirmative defense to second-degree murder. In other words, if Mr. Minor can prove that he “caused or aided…another person to commit suicide” then he will prevail, because second-degree murder is the only charge against him.
Both sides have valid arguments.
The prosecution and defense’s disagreement hinges on their interpretation of Mr. Minor’s role in the death of Mr. Locker. The prosecution frames his role of holding the knife as an active one and argues that Mr. Minor used force and actually stabbed Mr. Locker. The defense argues that Mr. Minor’s conduct was passive and contends that all Mr. Minor did was hold the knife in place while Mr. Locker plunged, willingly, onto it. While the statute doesn’t mention the terms “active” or “passive,” this distinction matters because the classification of the defendant’s conduct has been considered outcome determinative by the courts.
1992’s People v. Duffy was another New York case involving assisted suicide. Patrick Duffy, met Jason Schuhle on a street in the village of McGraw, N.Y. Mr. Schuhle had just broken up with his girlfriend and mentioned wanting to kill himself. The two went back to Mr. Duffy’s apartment and began to drink. Mr. Schuhle kept mentioning suicide, so Mr. Duffy offered Mr. Schuhle his unloaded rifle and ammunition, and taunted him to “put the gun in his mouth and blow his head off.” Moments later, Mr. Schuhle did just that. The court held that Mr. Duffy was guilty of second-degree manslaughter. He had, in effect, assisted a suicide by passively providing the means Mr. Schuhle used to achieve his fatal end. Despite his leading Mr. Schuhle to the gun and even coaxing him to kill himself, he didn’t, either literally or figuratively, pull the trigger.
But Mr. Minor’s case is different from Duffy in a very important way: money. Mr. Minor had a personal stake in ensuring that Mr. Locker died.
In contrast, his actions appear to be more akin to the defendant’s in the 1987 Texas case Goodin v. State. In Goodin, the defendant admitted that he shot and killed a woman, but claimed that he did so because she asked him to, and offered payment of a car and cash to do so. The defendant’s actively shot and killed the woman, and so even though she asked him to, he was convicted of second degree murder.
Last week, a forensic pathologist testified that the wounds in Mr. Locker’s chest were consistent only with another person having punctured him with the knife, and that he could not have caused the wounds himself while Mr. Minor just held the knife.
In any event, Mr. Minor’s defense will likely fail on pure policy grounds. A well-settled principle of contract law mandates that you cannot enter into an enforceable contract to achieve illegal objectives. Permitting death deals like the one entered into between Mr. Locker and Mr. Minor; would in effect expand the applicability of the defense and lead to its abuse.
Whether an offer is for sixty dollars or $60,000 makes no difference. Assisting a suicide as Mr. Minor did amounts to a murder and no bargain or deal can change that.