Most people convicted of murder are understood to have stolen their victim’s life. To have violently ripped it away against the person’s will. Not so Kenneth Minor, a 38-year-old man who was sentenced to 20 years to life this week for killing 52-year-old Jeffrey Locker. Minor’s defense? Locker begged Minor to “do a Kevorkian” on him. According to Minor, he was only helping the guy out.
The story offers a bizarre new twist on the assisted suicide debate currently playing out in courtrooms and hospitals all over this country. Locker was certainly not the typical candidate for ending one’s life via assisted suicide. He wasn’t old or suffering from unremitting physical pain. He wasn’t battling a chronic illness. He was, in fact, in his prime, a seemingly successful motivational speaker and “behavior modification expert” who lived with his wife and three children in Valley Stream, New York.
So why did he want to die, and why did he insist on involving a complete stranger?
While I don’t profess to know the inner workings of Locker’s mind, according to testimony in the trial, he was in serious financial trouble due to investments in a Ponzi scheme. Rather than face the consequences of his financial misdeeds, he began trolling East Harlem looking for men who would murder him in exchange for money. One of these men, Melvin Fleming, testified that Locker told him he was “looking for someone to make him dead.”
According to evidence presented in the trial, Locker’s determination to make it appear he’d been murdered also had a logical – if morally questionable — explanation: He wanted to make sure his family got the millions of dollars in insurance money he’d left for them. (Insurance companies generally don’t pay out in the case of a suicide, thus the need for a staged murder.)
And so, on a July night in 2009, after a couple of months of looking, Mr. Locker found a willing accomplice: Kenneth Minor. According to Minor, Locker instructed him to bind his hands and then hold a knife against the steering wheel while Locker repeatedly thrust his chest into the blade. This strange act of mercy may have gone undetected — buried beneath an already-steep pile of unsolved murders in New York City — if not for a surveillance tape, which caught Minor entering Locker’s car. (Minor was also later caught using Locker’s A.T.M. card. It was his payment, Minor claimed: the reward Mr. Locker had promised him for assisting in his suicide.)
One can’t help but wonder if Locker’s family might have preferred him to “help” them less, but instead, stay alive and face the financial and legal fallout from his alledged misdeeds. But none of them were in the courtroom on Monday when Minor was sentenced. Instead, Minor had the last word. Fighting back tears, he offered his condolences to Mr. Locker’s family and begged the judge for leniency.
“Only two people in the world know what happened that night,” Mr. Minor said. “And one of them is not here no more. But he did not want this for me, for me to lose the rest of my life.” He added: “In the end, Mr. Locker is where he wanted to be. I can’t take that back now, but I’m no animal. And I ain’t got no malice in my heart.”
While the jury did not buy Kenneth Minor’s defense and the judge ended up giving him 20 years to life, arguing that he’d been willing to commit an act of extreme violence for money, I think it’s only fair that — in the press anyway — Locker and his choices were also put on trial.
I have never understood the view that committing suicide is a selfish act. How can the motivations of someone who is acting out of extreme pain – either mental or physical – be criticized and judged by normal standards of behavior? But killing yourself to avoid the shame of facing your own wrong doings, engineering your death for the material gain of those left behind, and then involving an outsider in your own violent, bloody end, is enough to make me reconsider my position. Yes, I feel sorry for Locker and his desperate quest for “assistance,” but I feel sorrier still for Mr. Minor who was desperate enough to think that helping someone to die would be worth any amount of money.
In the end, does this case tell us anything important about the meaning of assisted suicide, as it is normally defined? Perhaps only this. I don’t think anyone, including the most rabid right-to-die advocates, would say that what happened on the street in east Harlem two years ago was an acceptable form of assisted suicide. And whatever reasons Mr. Minor had for agreeing to accommodate Mr. Locker’s brutal final request, our legal system soundly rejected them. How could it do otherwise?
One only hopes that this case will not distract us from the more important issues surrounding assisted suicide or make it more difficult for those who make this choice — not from selfishness or shame — but from courage and strength, and who choose to do so surrounded by loving helpers, not paid strangers.