Arizona bill tackles assisted suicide

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By Sarah Blais By Sarah Blais

PHOENIX (AP) -- Arizona legislators are considering a bill that aims to make it easier to prosecute people who help someone commit suicide.

But whether the bill would actually do that depends on whom you ask.

Arizona Rep. Justin Pierce, R-Mesa, said his bill will make it easier for attorneys to prosecute people for manslaughter for assisting in suicide by more clearly defining what it means to "assist."

House Bill 2565 defines assisting in suicide as offering and providing the physical means used to commit suicide, such as a gun.

The proposal was prompted by a difficult prosecution stemming from a 2007 assisted suicide in Maricopa County.

"Frankly, I think it's immoral and wrong, and that's what is motivating me in this bill," Pierce said.

A House committee approved the bill 6-2 Thursday.

But an attorney for the Final Exit Network, a national right-to-die group whose members were involved in a 2007 death that led to a trial in Arizona, said the bill actually does the opposite of what it intends and would make prosecuting more difficult.

"I can't understand what they're thinking," Robert Rivas said. "It just doesn't add up."

Arizona prosecutors tried four Final Exit Network members in 2011 in the death of Jana Van Voorhis, who committed suicide in her Phoenix home on April 15, 2007. Maricopa County prosecutors said Voorhis was not terminally ill at the time of her death but suffered from mental-health issues and depression. Authorities initially thought Van Voorhis had died of natural causes, but an investigation revealed she had been in contact with Final Exit Network members online and they provided her instructions on how to commit suicide.

Four members were tried for manslaughter. Two pleaded guilty to lower charges, while another two others were acquitted.

Rebecca Baker, the legislative liaison for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office who worked with Pierce on his bill, said juries acquitted those two members because they did not clearly understand what it means to assist.

"The conclusion we ultimately came to was that we should just have the statute be more specific," she said.

But Rivas said the current statute is very clear, and the revised version narrows the ways in which prosecutors could prove someone committed manslaughter by assisting in a suicide.

"They're plainly wrong. They're not even looking at these words and understanding what they mean in plain English," Rivas said.

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