Friday, October 19, 2007
Panel Upholds Woman’s Prison Sentence in ‘Mercy Killing’
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The First District Court of Appeal yesterday upheld the denial of probation to a woman convicted of manslaughter for suffocating her elderly mother in what the woman contends was a mercy killing.
Div. Two affirmed the decision of Marin Superior Court Judge Verna A. Adams that Temple Lee Stuart did not overcome Penal Code Sec. 1203’s presumption against probation for persons convicted of crimes involving great bodily injury because the case was not “unusual” within the meaning of California Rule of Court 4.413.
Justice James R. Lambden said that Stuart could not overcome the presumption because the trial court had not abused its discretion when it found, based upon conflicting testimony and a possible financial motive, that Stuart had not acted out of provocation and duress, or due to vulnerability resulting from a mental disorder or life experience.
Stuart claims that her 87-year old mother Isabel Stuart’s health had been declining for several years and she was intent on taking her own life. At the time of death, Stuart’s mother suffered from a number of physical ailments, including diabetes and related neuropathy, coronary artery disease, breast cancer, hypertension, incontinency, and a serious bladder infection.
Stuart said that, on the evening of her mother’s death, she had been visiting when her mother told Stuart that she planned to overdose on pills she had been hoarding. Stuart left the room for some time and, upon returning, held a pillow over her mother’s face using her knees to avoid leaving fingerprints until her mother stopped breathing.
Stuart claimed that her mother said she wanted to die, and had begged Stuart to make sure that she did not wake up or become a vegetable. The defense offered testimony from Geoff Monk, her mother’s neighbor in the assisted living facility; Edith Garrett, her mother’s sister; and her mother’s financial planner, who all stated that Isabel Stuart’s health had been deteriorating and that she had repeatedly expressed a desire to take her own life.
Monk and Garrett also confirmed that Isabel Stuart had told them she had been hoarding pills in anticipation of using them to overdose, and said that they believed she had been involved in her own death.
However, officials at the assisted living facility stated that the elderly woman had been in relatively good health in the days leading up to her death, and that they had not noticed any signs of depression. The defendant’s brother, William Stuart, testified that his mother had voiced no complaints about her physical condition and had sounded upbeat and positive when he spoke with her in the week prior to her death.
Prior to suffocating her mother, Stuart had called another brother, Craig Stuart, to advise him of her plans. After the act, she admitted her part in her mother’s death to Craig Stuart and his wife.
After Stuart received over $500,000 from her mother’s estate, Craig Stuart approached police, who recorded a conversation between him and Stuart in which she repeated her admission, and Stuart was indicted for murder.
At sentencing, Stuart admitted that she was presumptively ineligible for probation, waived her sentencing rights and left sentencing to the court’s discretion. As a result, the trial judge sentenced Stuart to a six-year term in state prison, and declined her request for probation, finding that she did not overcome the statutory presumption.
When Stuart moved for reconsideration, the judge modified the sentence to impose a lower, three-year term in state prison, but declined to reconsider the ruling on probation.
On appeal, Lambden disagreed with Stuart’s argument that she should be entitled to probation consideration because her case was “unusual,” opining that the judge had not abused the court’s sentencing discretion.
Noting that probation is presumptively prohibited where a defendant willfully inflicted great bodily injury in the perpetration of a crime, he wrote that mere suitability for probation under the factors set forth in the Penal Code did not automatically entitle a defendant to probation, he said that probation was limited to matters in which the crime is either atypical or the offender’s moral blameworthiness is reduced.
Pointing to the conflict between Stuart’s account of her mother’s wishes, as well as Stuart’s financial incentive for killing her mother, Lambden said that the trial judge had a reasonable basis for the sentencing ruling.
“Aside from defendant’s own contentions,” he wrote, “there is no indication in the record that Isabel wanted to, or acted to, die on January 11, 2004…No one other than defendant contended Isabel said anything about an intention to die that day, and she did not leave behind any statement reflecting such a decision.”
Lamden also said that Stuart did not overcome the presumption against probation because it was not an “unusual case,” despite Stuart’s assertion that she committed the act out of filial obedience.
“A court is not required to conclude such an act rests on a higher moral plane than any other killing,” he wrote. “Indeed, to do so would potentially expose some of the most vulnerable in our society to the grave danger of being killed by loved ones, however compassionate they may be, who are unable to resist a temptation which dovetails with their financial self-interest, as the record suggests may have been the case here.”
Agreeing with the trial court that Stuart’s actions were “perhaps the most extreme form that elder abuse can take,” Lambden wrote that the trial court acted within its discretion in rejecting any arguments that Stuart’s motivations reduced her moral culpability.
He rejected Stuart’s argument that the trial court had arbitrarily concluded that she did not act out of great provocation and duress, pointing to the fact that children attending to elderly or chronically ill parents face analogous circumstances and stresses every day in virtually every community across the state. Lambden also pointed, again, to the conflicting evidence to support the trial court’s rejection Stuart’s argument that her mother “invited death as a savior.”
Lambden finally swept aside Stuart’s argument that mental disorders and life experience made her particularly vulnerable to stress and impaired her judgment to the point that she concluded that she was acting pursuant to her mother’s wish and in her best interest, and rejected Stuart’s argument that the trial court’s reliance on the deterring effect of the sentence upon others was not an inappropriate emphasis when the record indicated the court carefully and sufficiently considered the specific circumstances of the case.
Lambden was joined in his opinion by Acting Presiding Justice Paul R. Haerle, and Justice James A. Richman.
The case is People v. Stuart, 2007 S.O.S. 6258.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company