A 42-YEAR-OLD Florida woman has won her battle to be allowed to die after a bullet fired by her own mother snapped her spine and left her paralysed from the neck down.
Doctors at the Lucerne Medical Center in Orlando, Florida, were authorised to remove a ventilator tube from the woman, Georgette Smith, any time after 5pm yesterday. They expected Ms Smith to die within minutes of her being detached from the breathing machine.
Ms Smith received her injury trying to persuade her mother to move out of her apartment and into an old people's home. Last week she sued for the right to be allowed to die. Late on Tuesday, Judge Richard Conrad ruled in her favour.
The request is expected to set in train a lengthy and highly unusual legal battle in the Florida courts. By choosing to end her life, Ms Smith is automatically giving prosecutors the chance to file murder charges against her mother. At the moment, Shirley Egan, who is 68, blind in one eye and has emphysema, remains in custody on charges of attempted first- degree murder.
The arguments will revolve around one central issue: although Ms Egan fired the bullet that severed her daughter's spine, can the state convict her of murder since it was the victim who chose actually to end her own life? Across the country yesterday, legal experts were divided on the question.
"God, don't leave me like this," Ms Smith said in a sworn statement to the court when she made her request last week.
"All I can do is wink my eyes and wiggle my nose, wiggle my tongue. I can't move any other part of my body. I can't live like this." Unable to move anything beneath her neck and vulnerable to infections like pneumonia as well as bed- sores, Ms Smith can speak but only with considerable difficulty.
Judge Conrad delayed until yesterday the authorisation for doctors to unhook Ms Smith, to allow prosecutors sufficient time to take depositions from her which they will use in the trial of the older woman. The judge sat in on a 45-minute session between Ms Smith and prosecutors on Tuesday and additional interviews were held yesterday.
"Ms Smith has made a difficult choice, a choice which she has the right to make," the judge said after his visit on Tuesday. He has ordered both sides in the upcoming Egan trial to refrain from public comment.
Ms Egan's lawyer, Bob Wesley, restricted himself to voicing objections to the judge's decision to allow Ms Smith to end her life. The ruling, he said, unfairly prejudiced his client. However, he told the judge, "Ms Egan does not want to see her daughter suffer."
The extraordinary case dates back to 8 March, the day that Ms Smith, accompanied by her boyfriend, visited the older woman to discuss plans to put her in a home. As she reached for the application papers, her mother grabbed a gun and fired at both of them. One bullet narrowly missed the man but another struck Ms Smith in the neck.
Among the legal experts studying the case, Peter Arenella of the University of California, doubts that Florida has the grounds to pursue murder charges against Ms Egan. "You can't be responsible for some else's death unless you cause that death," he told The New York Times.
"The daughter made a conscious decision to end her life, and should be held to be the actual cause of death. It would be difficult for prosecutors to persuade jurors that the attack caused her death."
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