A 73-year-old California man who flew to Detroit to help his cancer-stricken wife commit suicide was found not guilty Friday of second-degree murder.
A Detroit Recorder's Court jury deliberated about two hours Thursday and Friday before finding Bertram Harper did not commit murder by pulling a plastic bag over his wife's head and securing it after she had swallowed pills with liquor.Virgina Harper died Aug. 19, 1990, in a room at a suburban Detroit motel.
Prosecutors had urged jurors to set aside their sympathy for Harper and find that instead of helping his wife kill herself, he had murdered her. An autopsy showed Virginia Harper suffocated.
Harper and his 69-year-old wife came to Michigan from their Loomis, Calif., home because they believed assisted suicide was legal in Michigan.
No state law specifically prohibits it, although the Legislature is considering such a bill.
In his closing argument, Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Timothy Kenny told the jury that Harper committed an illegal "mercy killing," not an assisted suicide.
He contends that when Harper pulled the bag over his unconscious wife's head and fastened it in place, he crossed the line between suicide and murder.
"You have a 73-year-old man who is likable and admirable in a number of ways," Kenny said. "But what he did is not acceptable in Michigan."
Defense attorney Otis Culpepper asked the jury to remember Harper's deep love for his wife.
"This is not a crime of violence. This is an act of love," he said.
Earlier Thursday, the victim's daughter, Shanda McGrew, testified that her mother began planning her suicide when she learned last August that she had terminal cancer.
McGrew said she flew with her mother and stepfather to Detroit on Aug. 18 and checked into the Comfort Inn in Romulus, where Mrs. Harper intended to kill herself.
She said her mother swallowed what was supposed to be a fatal dose of a tranquilizer, along with motion-sickness medicine and alcohol, and pulled a plastic bag over her head.
But Mrs. Harper became uncomfortable and began trying to pull the bag off her head, McGrew said. Three or four times, McGrew said she and her stepfather helped her mother remove the bag.
Finally, her mother seemed to fall into a deep sleep.
"At this point, my stepfather pulled the bag over her head and secured it," said McGrew, 40, who was not charged in her mother's death. "We waited. I have no idea how much time passed. She stopped breathing. Bob (Harper) looked at me and said, `She's gone.' "