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Trial Ordered for Elderly Man Held in Mercy Killing Case

September 8, 1990

ROMULUS, Mich. (AP) _ The lawyer for an elderly, California man accused of helping his wife commit suicide says he doubts a jury would convict him since he acted out of love.

Bertram Harper was ordered Friday to stand trial on murder and conspiracy charges in the Aug. 19 death of his wife, Virginia, in a motel room.

Harper, 72, could receive a life sentence.

Harper’s lawyer, Hugh Davis, said the murder charge wouldn’t stand up because Harper’s help in securing a plastic bag over his wife’s head lacked the key element of malice.

″I don’t think a jury’s going to convict this man of anything,″ Davis said. ″I don’t believe an act of love is a crime. This is a case of love and death, and which shall prevail? We believe love will.″

Mrs. Harper planned her suicide after learning she was terminally ill with breast and liver cancer, her husband said.

The murder case against Harper rests largely on his telling police he had put the bag over his wife’s head and secured it around her neck after a non- lethal combination of pills and alcohol put her to sleep.

The official cause of death was asphyxiation, the Wayne County medical examiner’s office said.

District Judge Henry Zaborowski ordered Harper tried on one count of open murder, which may be defined at trial as first- or second-degree murder or manslaughter, and one count of conspiracy to commit murder.

Under Michigan law, first-degree murder is punished by mandatory life imprisonment; second-degree murder by up to life imprisonment; and manslaughter by up to 15 years imprisonment.

Harper told police they came to Michigan from their home in Loomis, Calif., because they believed Michigan had no law making it illegal to assist in a suicide. Under California law, such an act is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Shanda McGrew, 40, Mrs. Harper’s daughter and Harper’s stepdaughter, flew to Michigan with them and was present at her mother’s death. She is an unindicted co-conspirator in the case.

Zaborowski let Harper return to California under $25,000 bond. He probably will not have to return to Michigan until his trial begins in late October or early November, Davis said.

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