NEOSHO, Mo. (AP) -- A man accused of helping his terminally ill wife commit
suicide in a motel the day after their 50th wedding anniversary was charged
along with their son Friday with voluntary manslaughter.
Bernard A. Howard, 76, of Belleville, Ill., and Bernard J. Howard, 49, of
Plano, Texas, could face five to 15 years in prison if convicted.
Velma M. Howard, 76, suffocated at a motel in Joplin on Dec. 9 after
drinking orange juice laced with sleeping medication and alcohol and then
placing a plastic bag over her head.
"While I'm not unsympathetic to what happened, I am also not in the business
of ignoring violations of the law," Newton County Prosecutor Greg Bridges said.
Missouri statutes define "assisted self-murder" as a form of voluntary
manslaughter, but prosecutors said as far as they knew, no one had ever been
charged under that count before.
Dee Wampler, attorney for the husband, said that Mrs. Howard "was in great
pain and had thought long and hard about suicide. She made a conscious,
determined decision to end her life."
Wampler and the attorney for the son said their clients would surrender to
authorities in Neosho next week and plead innocent.
The men told police Mrs. Howard, a former kindergarten teacher, had
considered suicide since she was diagnosed in February 1995 with amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, the degenerative disease of nerve cells also known as Lou
The father and son are accused of providing Mrs. Howard with the medication,
alcohol and rubber bands to secure the plastic bag and arranging things in the
motel room so she could reach them. Only the father was in the room when she
died but the son was in the room at some point, authorities said.
A copy of the suicide manual "Final Exit" was found in the room.
A second son from Lenexa, Kan., whose identity was not released, was also at
the motel at some point but was not charged. Bridges said the investigation was
The Howards could not be reached for comment. Attorney General Jay Nixon had
no comment on the charges.
Velma and Bernard Howard celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Joplin
with their sons the day before her death. Police said Joplin was chosen because
it was a central meeting place for her sons.
Friends described the Howards as a loving couple. Mrs. Howard, who wore
braces on her arms and hands, was discouraged that her illness prevented her
from dancing, which she loved, they said.
Wampler and the son's attorney, Shawn Askinosie, said they were confident a
jury would clear the men.
"The prosecutor, a fine lawyer, has toiled and struggled with this statute
for a month. If the prosecutor has struggled with this statute, what will a
jury do?" Askinosie said.
The Hemlock Society USA, a national right-to-die organization, said six
instances of assisted suicide were reported to the group in 1994 and 15 cases
in 1993. Only a few resulted in criminal charges, it said.
"The way that we feel at Hemlock is that these family members shouldn't have
to get involved," said Wiley Morrison, a Kansas City attorney and president of
"We want the working relationship with doctors so that legally they can
stand by their patients from the moment of birth until the moment of death," he
said. "In the meantime you're going to have these things happening."
But Greg Maurer of Webb City, president of the Joplin chapter of Missouri
Right to Life, disagreed.
"All life has been sanctified," he said. "We don't have the authority
to take someone else's life."
ALS afflicts some 30,000 Americans. Victims' life expectancy -- just three
to five years -- has changed little since the disease killed Yankees' first
baseman Lou Gehrig in 1941.
ALS attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. It eventually
paralyzes victims, including the muscles responsible for breathing.
"It's a very devastating situation. It requires 24-hour-a-day care," said
Beckie Cooper, executive director of the ALS Association-Keith Worthington
chapter in Kansas City.