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Lawyers ask Schuylkill judge to dismiss 'assisted suicide' case

| Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, 7:18 a.m.

POTTSVILLE — A Schuylkill County judge is considering arguments to dismiss a criminal case against a Philadelphia nurse accused of helping her dying father commit suicide by handing him a bottle of morphine.

Judge Jacqueline Russell on Thursday issued no ruling from the bench after attorneys for the nurse, Barbara Mancini, and the state Attorney General's Office submitted arguments on whether evidence unavailable to the defense at an earlier hearing should be considered in the case.

Mancini, 57, is charged with aiding or assisting suicide in a case that garnered national attention. A slim, silver-haired woman, Mancini and others in the case are under a gag order.

“I cannot say anything about the case. I'm trying to tread carefully,” she said before the hearing. “It's been a terrible year for us. It's been difficult.”

She is on unpaid leave from a hospital she declined to name and wants to work again.

Her case has reignited debate over how and when terminally ill people can be assisted in ending their lives.

Mancini in February handed liquid morphine, prescribed by a physician for pain, to her father, who had heart disease, diabetes, stage 3 kidney disease and other complications, according to court documents.

Joe Yourshaw, 93, had signed directives that he did not want life-prolonging efforts. He wanted to die in his Pottsville home. He gave his daughter medical decision-making authority. He was under in-home hospice care, defense documents state.

Mancini is charged with a second-degree felony, potentially punishable by up to 10 years, although prison time is unlikely.

She is free on bond.

On Feb. 7, Mancini gave Yourshaw the morphine for pain relief at his request, Mancini's attorney contends.

Yourshaw had access to the morphine, and hospice expected the family to administer it, her attorneys say. He could open the bottle himself. He died in a hospital four days later.

“If Mrs. Mancini didn't hand him the bottle, he was perfectly capable of retrieving the bottle and consuming it himself,” attorney Frederick Fanelli of Pottsville said in court documents.

A visiting hospice nurse called an ambulance, even though Mancini said her father did not want resuscitation. At the hospital, medical personnel gave him a drug to reverse the effects of morphine, Mancini's defense argues.

Yourshaw recovered and began talking to people in the hospital, defense documents state.

He was given morphine again in the hospital and died there on Feb. 11.

A coroner ruled Yourshaw died from toxic levels of morphine.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office is prosecuting Mancini because the county district attorney declared a conflict of interest.

Pottsville police Capt. Steve Durkin testified at an August preliminary hearing that Mancini told him that her father wanted to die and she gave him the morphine.

No evidence links the morphine Yourshaw ingested at home to his death, Fanelli argued. Mancini didn't counsel her father to take it, nor did she open the bottle for him, Fanelli contended.

There's no evidence Mancini knew the dose was potentially fatal, court papers state.

The law is vague, and it is not clear what constitutes aiding or soliciting a suicide, Fanelli said.

Prosecutors argued Mancini “aided or solicited Yourshaw to commit suicide” and that her conduct was intentional. Prosecutors argued that Yourshaw attempted to commit suicide, and it would not have happened “but for the defendant's conduct.”

Mancini's lawyer argued that hospice records show Yourshaw took opiate medication, and they should be part of the case record.

Russell expressed skepticism at some aspects of the state's case. Elderly people frequently say they want to die, and they may or may not mean it, she said.

Fanelli noted that Yourshaw was diabetic but ate candy and drank soda.

“If you give him that soda, are you assisting in his suicide?” he asked, arguing the state law on assisted suicide is vague.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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