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Arizona man, 86, gets probation in mercy killing case

On Friday an Arizona judge sentenced George Sanders, 86, to two years unsupervised probation. Last fall, at her request, Sanders shot his ailing wife, whom he had cared for since she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969.

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George Sanders, (c.), is joined by his attorney Janey Henze Cook, (r.), outside a Phoenix courtroom, Friday. The 86-year-old, who carried out a mercy killing by shooting his ailing wife and high school sweetheart in the head, was sentenced Friday to probation after an emotional hearing where family members tearfully spoke on his behalf.

Brian Skoloff/AP

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There was no doubt 86-year-old George Sanders killed his ailing wife. Yet everyone in the small Arizona courtroom — the prosecutor, the judge and even the couple's family members — agreed it was a time for compassion, not punishment.

"My grandfather lived to love my grandmother, to serve and to make her feel as happy as he could every moment of their life," Sanders' grandson, Grant, told the judge, describing the couple's life together as "a beautiful love story."

"I truly believe that the pain had become too much for my grandmother to bear," he said, while Sanders looked on during the sentencing hearing Friday and occasionally wiped his eyes with a tissue as relatives pleaded tearfully for mercy.

Sanders was arrested last fall after he says his wife, Virginia, 81, begged him to kill her. He was initially charged with first-degree murder, but pleaded guilty to manslaughter in a deal with prosecutors. Still, he faced a sentence of up to 12 years.

His wife, whose family called her Ginger, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969, and was forced into a wheelchair soon after. She and Sanders, a World War II veteran, moved from Washington state in the 1970s for Arizona's warm, dry climate.

George Sanders became her sole caregiver. He cooked for her, cleaned the house, did laundry, put on her makeup and would take her to the beauty salon where he'd hold her hands up so she could get her nails done.

Eventually, though, his own health deteriorated. He had a pacemaker put in, and Virginia was diagnosed with gangrene on her foot. She was set to be admitted to a hospital, then likely a nursing home where she would spend the remainder of her life.

"It was just the last straw," Sanders told a detective during his interrogation shortly after the shooting at the couple's home in a retirement community outside Phoenix. "She didn't want to go to that hospital ... start cutting her toes off."

He said his wife begged him to kill her. "I said, 'I can't do it honey,'" he told the detective. "She says, 'Yes you can.'"

Sanders then got his revolver and wrapped a towel around it so the bullet wouldn't go into the kitchen. "She says, 'Is this going to hurt?' and I said, 'You won't feel a thing,'" he said.

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