LOS ANGELES -- Californians who helped kill their friends or spouses have avoided jail time as prosecutors struggle with the troubling issue of assisted suicide.
An Orange County social worker received probation last week for providing yogurt laced with the drug Oxycontin to an 86-year-old man who wanted to end his life. And a judge in San Luis Obispo County sentenced another 86-year-old man to probation and two days already served in jail for helping kill his wife last month in a botched suicide pact.
Prosecutors decided not to bring charges in at least two other suspected cases of assisted suicide last year.
While assisted suicide is illegal in California, such cases rarely go to trial. Plea deals usually are reached instead.
"Prosecutors find it necessary to uphold the principle of law but recognize the pointlessness of sending this person to prison forever," said Robert Weisberg, a criminal justice expert at Stanford Law School. Those who do take cases to trial risk acquittal because of sympathetic jurors.
"It's much better to have a record that people are convicted of a very serious crime but use human, commonsense judgment as to what the penalty is," Weisberg told the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/WxdDTO ).
George Taylor, 86, of Los Osos, was sentenced Wednesday for assisting in the suicide of his wife, Gewynn Taylor, 81.
"It wasn't murder," prosecutor Jerret Gran said. "There was an intent to help her kill herself, not an intent to kill her."
George Taylor, a retired Los Angeles firefighter, and his wife had long agreed on assisted suicide, said Ilan Funke-Bilu, Taylor's attorney.
Neither had a terminal illness, but medical problems were taking a toll on the couple.
"There was nothing wrong with their thinking," Funke-Bilu said. "They were active people who always promised one another that if they couldn't lead their lives the way they felt they should, then that would be the end of it."
Taylor was arrested Dec. 10 after his wife's body was discovered in the back seat of his car by a ranger in Montana De Oro State Park. Taylor had cuts around his neck and on his wrists and appeared disoriented, while the body had a trash bag cinched around its neck, authorities said.
Taylor told the ranger that he and his wife had been extremely depressed and had a suicide pact. He said that after putting the bag on his wife, he slashed his wrists and neck and tried to suffocate himself but survived, the sheriff's report stated.
Taylor pleaded guilty last month to assisted suicide.
Last week, an Orange County judge sentenced Elizabeth Barrett, 66, of Laguna Woods to three years of probation for aiding in the suicide of a World War II veteran.
Jack Koency, 86, of Laguna Niguel, decided to commit suicide even though he was not immobile or terminally ill, prosecutors said.
Barrett drove him to make his funeral arrangements on Sept. 30, 2011.
Later that day, she crushed Oxycontin pills, mixed a lethal dose into yogurt and gave it to Koency, who ate it, went to his bedroom, lay down and died, authorities said. She called 911 to report the death a while later.
Last year, prosecutors in San Diego County decided against pursuing assisted suicide charges against Alan Purdy, 88, of San Marcos.
Purdy said he watched his 84-year-old wife, Jo Purdy, take applesauce she had laced with 30 sleeping pills and place a bag over her head.
Alan Purdy said his wife was in crippling pain from the autoimmune disease pancreatitis and had attempted suicide before.
"Yes, I sat beside her as she died," he told the Times in an interview weeks after his wife's death. "I didn't want her to feel abandoned. I wanted her to know that I loved her."
In July, Riverside County prosecutors decided not to charge Bill Bentinck, then 87, in the death of his wife, who was under hospice care at the couple's Palm Springs home. He was released after spending three days in jail.
The district attorney's office said there was insufficient evidence to prove that he had helped 77-year-old Lynda Bentinck, who was terminally ill with emphysema, disconnect her oxygen supply.
Bentinck told police that his wife removed her own nasal catheter and refused his offer to get emergency help.
Information from: Los Angeles Times, http://www.latimes.com