Suicide on Trial

Here is a case you probably haven't heard much about. In Colorado, a man named Phillip Effland was charged with killing his wife and assisting in his daughter's suicide. Shocking as this may seem, it's not terribly unusual. What is unusual is that prosecutors, the judge and defense attorneys were unable last week to pick a jury last week because so many people were willing to accept suicide as an end-of-life option. And yesterday, reports the Denver Post, 140 more prospective jurors were excused before the judge and the lawyers could agree on 12 jurors and one alternate.

The Post's Mike McPhee did a nice job in his brief article today detailing some of the responses potential jurors offered when asked whether they could sit in judgment on a man, Effland, who is charged with making a suicide pact with his wife and daughter last summer and then carrying it out-- even when he had to shoot his wife because the pills she had taken didn't kill her themselves. "On Monday," McPhee reported, "nearly half of the useated (jury) pool said they had a family member or a friend attempt suicide. Roughly one in 10 had a family member or friend who committed suicide." Just a bunch of folks trying to get out of jury duty? Or a sign that suicide surrounds us in a way few of us are aware? The latter, if you look at the statistics (although I could not find updated ones).

Will jurors have sympathy for Effland? Probably not. Especially since he shot his wife twice in the head when the pills didn't work. And voir dire in the case seems to confirm that suicide, or even assisted suicide, is deemed morally wrong but a substantial minority of folks. "Roughly one in four potential jurors," McPhee reported, "said they never could condone suicide for any reason.... Only a handful said suicide would be justified for depression or hardship." All of which makes the job for defense attorneys in this case daunting. Why? Because initial reports suggested that Effland and his wife and child agreed to kill themselves because they were about to be evicted from their home and didn't have enough to pay off their debts.

I will keep an eye on this one and report back to you on it as it progresses through trial.

By Andrew Cohen |  June 20, 2006; 2:15 PM ET
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