Stories written by Jo Ciavaglia, award-winning multimedia newspaper reporter at the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia, Pa.
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Monday, June 16, 2014
Charges for assisting in suicide rare, but not unheard of in Pa.
Posted: Sunday, June 15, 2014
In the four suicide notes that Karen Yiambilis wrote before she died in April, she repeatedly states her and her 30-year-old son’s desire to die.
“It’s too much pain here,” she wrote in a note to her stepson, Nicholas Yiambilis.
“Please understand why we left this world. Gus and I were very unhappy. The negativity was too much,” she wrote to her daughter, Eleni.
“It’s time for me to take Gus home to God where he can be happy and at peace,” she wrote to her husband, George.
Those sentiments were echoed again in three suicide notes written by Koustantinos “Gus” Yiambilis and found in his mother’s bedroom.
Still, Gus Yiambilis is charged with homicide and causing/aiding in suicide in the carbon monoxide poisoning death of his 59-year-old mother.
Yiambilis’ case might be the first prosecution in Bucks County for assisting in a suicide, a rarely used felony charge in Pennsylvania. Some legal experts believe the case has the potential to break new ground in the right-to-die movement, which has largely focused on assisted suicide cases involving the elderly, the terminally ill or people with life-altering disabilities.
Katherine Pearson, an attorney and a Penn State Dickinson School of Law expert on legal issues facing older adults, described the Yiambilis case as “extremely rare,” since neither mother nor son was physically disabled or terminally ill, but simply expressed a desire to die.
“Where there was no indication of suffering, physical suffering, or terminal illness, I can’t think of one that I’ve seen,” she said. “There may be a proof problem for the prosecution on that side of the case.”
Suicide notes written by Karen and Gus Yiambilis
While the Yiambilis case doesn’t strike Pearson as one that would likely generate additional legislation involving assisted suicide, it is tragic nonetheless.
“We struggle enough with the terminally ill and their right to seek aid,” she said. “This is the kind of case that cries out for a negotiated alternative (rather than prison).”
Nationally, legal experts note that arrests for assisting in suicide are less common than years ago, which some believe signals changing attitudes about end-of-life decisions, despite existing laws that outlaw it in all but five U.S. states.
Neighboring Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Ferman said she isn’t aware of any such cases in her county, at least in the 21 years she has been a prosecutor. Professional organizations representing district attorneys and defense lawyers in the state also said the charge of causing/aiding in suicide is rarely used.
Statewide, 53 people were convicted of causing/aiding in suicide between 2004 and 2012, according to data from the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing. The data reflects sentences reported to the commission through its secure Web application.
Most of those convicted — 39 — were sentenced to state prison. Only 10 were sentenced to so-called “restorative sanctions,” non-confinement sentences that include fines, according to the commission.
Assisting in suicide has been a crime in Pennsylvania since 1973 and the law specifically notes that survivors of suicide pacts can be guilty under the statute.
Under the law, a person can be charged in either of two ways: criminal homicide for intentionally causing someone to kill himself by force, duress or deception or, as Yiambilis is charged, for aiding or soliciting suicide. That’s when a person intentionally aids or solicits another person to commit suicide or their behavior causes someone to attempt or commit suicide.
Yiambilis also is charged with homicide, but not under the assisting in suicide law.
Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association executive director Richard Long said that he has not heard of many prosecutions under the law.
“It’s one of those things that a district attorney has to make a determination on regarding the facts and determinations involving a suicide,” Long added.
Earlier this year a Schuylkill County judge dismissed an aiding/assisting in suicide charge against Philadelphia nurse Barbara Mancini, whom the state attorney general charged with assisting in the 2013 suicide of her terminally ill 93-year-old father. The case focused national attention on the right-to-die issue.
Mancini was accused of giving her father, who was in hospice care, a bottle of prescribed morphine, on which he subsequently overdosed. She denied that she intended him to use the drug to kill himself, according to news stories.
In 1995, Snyder County resident Leonard Luczak was charged with assisting in his wife’s suicide. After an argument, Luczak gave his wife a loaded .32 revolver that he kept in a nightstand and suggested that she’d be better off dead, according to press accounts. The woman took the gun and fatally shot herself, according to news stories.
Prosecutors added a charge of criminal homicide to the initial aiding/assisting in suicide offense. Luczak ended up pleading guilty to assisting in his wife’s suicide and was sentenced to one to two years in county jail, according to his defense attorney, Peter Campana.
With the Yiambilis case, defense attorney William Goldman contends there is no evidence that Gus Yiambilis actively participated in the planning of the alleged double-suicide pact. After her April 7 death, neighbors said that Yiambilis and her son recently had fallen on hard financial times.
Gus and Karen Yiambilis in happier times
At Yiambilis’ recent preliminary hearing, testimony included mention of Karen Yiambilis’ writing on all the envelopes that contained both hers and her son’s suicide notes; at least one note she wrote that made reference to her wanting to take her son “to God;” and a neighbor who says Karen — not Gus — asked to borrow her gas generator.
Also, police did not take fingerprints from the duct and packing tape that was found covering the doors, vents and windows in the bedroom where Karen Yiambilis and the generator were found.
Yiambilis said that he was using the generator because PECO had shut off power to the house and he refilled the generator with gas around 9 p.m. then fell asleep, according to court documents and testimony.
More than two hours later, police and fire officials showed up to Longmeadow apartment complex where the mother and son lived after receiving reports of gas fumes.
A Bensalem police officer testified at the hearing that when Yiambilis was arrested at the hospital, he was crying and blurted out, “I can’t believe I killed my mother. She’s the only thing I got.”
A 2008 study found that a growing number of healthy, but “weary of life” people are traveling abroad seeking assisted suicide in Switzerland, one of the few nations where it is legal.
The University of Bern study found that 16 percent of people who used right-to-die groups in Switzerland reported no underlying health problems on their death certificates. The research was gathered from anonymous data on 1,301 cases of assisted suicide between 2003 and 2008.
Attorney James Swetz, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, called it senseless to file charges against the survivor of what looks like a suicide pact.
“What purpose is accomplished by prosecuting the survivor? Are you not better off giving the survivor the mental health treatment? I guess seeking treatment doesn’t put a notch in a prosecutor holster.”