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The quiet acceptance of 'mercy killings' in the US: Even in states where euthanasia is illegal, courts are often turning a blind eye


Elderly accused of murdering spouses shown their own mercy in sentencing

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Assisted suicide is illegal in most of the United States. Yet, tragic cases where spouses are accused of killing their longtime loves in the name of mercy show that judges in America are reluctant to hand down punishment for such crimes.

What are the details?

On Wednesday, a man in Clinton, Mississippi, shot and killed his wife of over 40 years at a rehabilitation center in a suspected mercy killing. Thomas Ballenger, 70, told police upon his arrest that his wife, Rebecca, also 70, had told him following her recent stroke that she "didn't want to live that way."

Ballenger has been charged with murder and denied bond.

Clinton Police Lt. Josh Frazier told local news outlets: "This is the saddest crime I've ever worked. They were married. They were each other's shadows. They cared for each other a lot. But there is some indication the victim said she did not want to live like that."

Stories of elderly men sending their wives to the grave for the sake of ending suffering continue to mount, while the lenient sentencing of such crimes seemingly gets less play in the media.

The headline of an article in St. Louis' Riverfront Times from 2016 stated that "In Missouri, senior citizens who kill often get away with murder." Reporter Shawn Shinneman pointed to the case of Donald Rowland, an 88-year-old veteran known as a model citizen and husband who stabbed to death his 86-year-old wife of 64 years in 2014. When Rowland's daughter arrived at his home the morning of the killing and found her father still responsive after trying to take his own life, he asked her to smother him with a pillow.

"I never heard a cross word between them," a friend of the Rowlands for nearly 25 years told the media at the time. "They were such a lovely couple; I couldn't believe it."

In that case, prosecutors offered a plea deal which ultimately resulted in Rowland being charged with involuntary manslaughter, and the judge sentenced him to five years' probation. At the time of Rowland's arrest, he told police that he and his wife didn't want to be a burden on their family.

Six months after his shortened probation period was deemed complete, Rowland jumped off the roof of a parking garage, killing himself.

In 2013, an 86-year-old Arizona man was sentenced to probation at the recommendation of prosecutors for shooting his wife of 62 years, Ginger, in the head in another mercy killing.

The accused, George Sanders, told the judge, "Your honor, I met Ginger when she was 15 years old and I've loved her since she was 15 years old. I loved her when she was 81 years old."

Sanders apologized for the pain he had caused, and his son told the court that he believed that his father had become overwhelmed with being the full-time caregiver for his mother — reiterating that the family did not want him to be prosecuted for the crime.

Anything else?

The Riverfront Times article revealed that out of 30 Missouri homicides involving offenders over the age of 75 in recent decades, only one perpetrator was sentenced to prison time. The author stated that the "stories raise the question of whether, at a certain age, you can get away with murder."

While euthanasia — the killing of a hopelessly sick person in the name of mercy — is prohibited in most of the U.S., the states of Pennsylvania, California, Colorado, Oregon, Vermont, Hawaii, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia, have legalized assisted suicide.

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