Anguish: When death invades life in a very real way

Some things are easy in theory, but a lot more difficult when they become reality.

My wife Cheryl has had her grandmother living with her for the last seven years. Her grandmother is 92. In addition to raising two teenage boys, Cheryl also had her father-in-law (from her first marriage) and her mother and father living with her. A former nurse, Cheryl doesn't believe in sending the elderly to institutions; she thinks they ought to be at home with their family. When some wanted to institutionalize her dementia-stricken father-in-law, she would have none of it, and took him in. Her mother, a singer who beat out Patsy Cline for a spot on a television show, but lost that job due to pregnancy, got a flu shot one day when she was 61. It paralyzed her. After the insurance money ran out, Cheryl moved her mother and dad into her house. All three members of that generation died there. It has not been easy.

The end now appears to be near for her grandmother who was taken to the emergency room a few days ago. The doctor told Cheryl, who has a medical power of attorney, that she believed her grandmother had hours or a couple of days to live. Her grandmother previously indicated she did not wish to be resuscitated or put on life support. Still, there are some things in between, and Cheryl is coming face-to-face with difficult decisions. Various options were offered by the doctor: things like, should she be put in the ICU, should she be given oxygen, and what about a PICC line and antibiotics. These questions may seem simple to someone who doesn't have to answer them, but they have weighed heavily on Cheryl. Cheryl once said to me, "You only have to face the law; I have to face the facts."

During this turmoil, I visited an old friend, Federal Magistrate Judge Thomas Mummert. We started talking about his days on the state circuit court bench, and he mentioned that in the last case on that bench he sentenced a man to death. Tom said with a rather heavy sigh, "Now that's something I don't miss at all."

In that case, two promising young women, and their cousin, were strolling across a bridge at night. They were confronted by Marlin Gray and others. Apparently, Gray decided first to rob them, then to rape the two girls, and then to throw them into the river. The cousin, deciding jumping was preferable to being thrown in, did so and lived.

The police, however, didn't buy the story that he survived the long fall into the rushing river. Eventually, apparently with the cousin's father coaxing him, he confessed to the murders! (He later recanted, but it is an example of the oddity of false confessions.) Apparently at one point, one of the women who could not swim grabbed her cousin in the middle of the river. He shook her off to avoid drowning himself. Maybe there was a guilt thing going on when he confessed. According to Judge Mummert, listening to the cousin's testimony about those events "was just plain awful." Judge Mummert said it's amazing how many people think it's easy to make life or death decisions, whether they concern strangers or loved ones.

Tom's experience is that the reality of these decisions, even when you don't know the people involved personally, is almost always gut-wrenching.

In another of Tom's death penalty cases, about a half dozen people were laid face down on the floor in a grocery store, and then one by one, shot in the head. There was one survivor who was unable to identify the shooter or shooters. The jurors did not recommend the death penalty. Tom told me in both cases the jurors were a complete wreck. He said, "They sweated blood." Tom explained there was "overwhelming anguish" and lots of tears in both cases.

Federal Judge Rodney Sippel recently commented to me that jurors are totally unprepared for what they confront in death cases. He said they walk into the courtroom, having no idea what type of case they will be asked to decide, and all of sudden they are asked to determine whether somebody lives or dies. In fact, some states now offer counseling programs to jurors after death penalty cases to help them deal with the burden of their decisions.

Those of us who take strident positions on issues such as the death penalty, abortion and euthanasia, or a whole host of other issues, often do so from a rational and/or academic, but distanced perspective. We ought to realize that many times things are a lot easier to talk about, when we don't have to actually face them. The world, however, is not a textbook. Real life is not a podium.

Cheryl made her tough choices. Her grandmother lasted more than a couple of hours, and more than a couple of days. She probably won't last too much longer, and there will probably be more tough decisions to come. One decision, however, was easy. Cheryl brought her home to be with her family.

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Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column. Mark Levison is a member of the law firm Lathrop & Gage L.C. You can reach the Levison Group in care of this paper or by e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.

© 2010 Under Analysis L.L.C.

Published: Fri, Mar 5, 2010