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Monday, April 24, 2017

The Crime of Assisted Suicide: The Willard Skellie Case

     In America, suicide is not a crime, but in all states but one, helping someone take their life is a form of criminal  homicide. In New York state, the act of assisted suicide is prosecuted as second-degree manslaughter which carries a sentence of five to fifteen years.

     Willard F. Skellie and his wife Kathy lived in a two-story house in Glens Falls, New York 45 miles north of Albany. Several years ago the couple adopted a child with HIV. In 2012, Kathy, suffering from mental illness, battled clinical depression. The 59-year-old woman also struggled with the side-effects of her anti-psychotic medication, and experienced panic attacks whenever she left the house. As a result, Kathy spent days at a time locked into her bedroom. Early in 2012, she tried to kill herself with a knife.

     At the end of her rope, Kathy asked her 69-year-old husband to buy a gun and teach her how to use it. Knowing that she intended to use the weapon to commit suicide, Willard purchased a 12-gauge shotgun and showed his wife how to operate it. As he demonstrated how the shotgun worked, Kathy made notes on a sheet of paper. When Willard loaded the gun, he altered the first two rounds so they wouldn't fire, hoping that two misfires would discourage Kathy from killing herself. Kathy took the loaded weapon to her room.

     On Friday, December 14, 2012, Willard went deer hunting in the morning and didn't return until evening. He went to bed that night without checking on Kathy. Early the next morning, Willard went out hunting again, and when he returned to the house a few hours later, forced his way into Kathy's bedroom. He found that his wife had used the shotgun to shoot herself in the head. He called 911.

     Officers with the Glens Falls Police Department asked Willard Skellie if he had helped his wife take her own life. After Mr. Skellie denied helping her in any way, a detective asked if he'd be willing to take a polygraph test at the state police headquarters in Greenwich, New York. Mr. Skellie agreed to take the lie detection exam.

     On Sunday, December 16, 2012, when detectives informed Mr. Skellie that the polygraph examiner believed he had lied when he denied helping his wife kill herself, he confessed to his role in her death. Mr. Skellie also admitted destroying the notes Kathy had taken regarding how to operate the shotgun. In his confession, Mr. Skellie said, "She was in mental pain from everything. She just couldn't take it anymore."

     On the day of Mr. Skellie's confession, Warren County District Attorney Kate Hogan charged him with tampering with physical evidence and second-degree manslaughter. Unable to post his $100,000 cash bail, Mr. Skellies remained incarcerated in the Warren County Jail.

     In May 2013, Willard Skellie pleaded guilty to helping his wife kill herself. Judge John Hall sentenced Mr. Skellie to five years probation and 1,000 hours of community service. 

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