Prosecutors say they'll pursue a lower murder charge against a man accused of killing a motivational speaker who apparently wanted to die.
Manhattan prosecutors concede that victim Jeffrey Locker had money problems and took out $18 million in life insurance to benefit his family after his death.
They now believe he voluntarily gave suspect Kenneth Minor his ATM card and pin number before he was stabbed in July 2009.
Minor says he was paid to help the victim kill himself and make it look like a robbery.
Prosecutors said Wednesday that they'll prosecute Minor on a second-degree murder charge, instead of first-degree murder.
Assistant District Attorney Peter Casolaro said the case would not qualify for a manslaughter prosecution under New York's assisted suicide statute.
Minor has pleaded not guilty.
The move to reduce charges began in April, and the decision was the latest turn in the strange case surrounding Locker's death. It was initially investigated as the result of a robbery, but now it seems Locker may have engineered his death.
The case also has explored unusual terrain in the law surrounding assisted suicide, which most commonly involves terminally ill people and medical providers.
Locker gave workshops on dealing with stress, frustration and anxiety in the workplace. He was found dead in his car July 16, with his hands tied behind his back. Minor, who had worked at times as a computer technician, was charged with murder and robbery.
Minor, 29, told police that Locker approached him on an East Harlem street, offering to pay for his own death. He said Locker then guided him through getting a knife out of the speaker's glove compartment and holding the blade while Locker repeatedly lunged into it.
But the judge said that even if Minor's account were true, Locker's death would constitute a murder. She noted that courts around the country have ruled that actively participating in a person's death is murder, even if the person wants to die.
"The law does not permit a person to consent to his own murder," she wrote.
Attorneys had wanted the murder charge reduced to manslaughter or promoting a suicide, which carry potentially lesser penalties.
Courts around the country have grappled with the legal line between murder and facilitating a suicide, largely in cases involving terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives. In the most notorious example, Dr. Jack Kevorkian was convicted of murder in 1999 after giving a lethal injection to a man with Lou Gehrig's disease — an action videotaped and broadcast on CBS' "60 Minutes." Kevorkian served eight years in prison.
Other cases have involved the deaths of people who were despondent, but not sick.
A Texas appeals court upheld the murder conviction of a man who said he shot a woman who offered to give him her car and a couple of hundred dollars to kill her in 1985; though there was dispute about whether she wanted to die, the court said it didn't matter if she did. In Colorado, appeals judges upheld the murder conviction of a man who said he shot his depressed, drug-abusing girlfriend in 1998 to end her suffering after she had shot herself.
In general, courts have said "consent is no defense — that if you intended to do what you did ... the fact that there was some part of you that was motivated by compassion isn't enough," said Marc Spindelman, a professor at Ohio State University's Michael E. Moritz College of Law. He studies legal issues surrounding death and dying.
But lesser roles in a suicidal person's death have sometimes been met with lesser charges. A man who gave a suicidal teen a rifle — and urged him to use it — in 1988 in McGraw, N.Y., was convicted of manslaughter, but not charged with murder.
In Minor's case, prosecutors have said a jury should decide what happened between him and Locker and whether it amounted to murder, though they acknowledge some evidence exists to support Minor's account.
Locker, 52, had told a Florida court he was struggling financially after losing money in a $300 million Ponzi scheme run by boy band impresario Lou Pearlman, the mastermind of 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. Pearlman is serving a 25-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to the scam.
Locker was researching funeral arrangements and had bought millions of dollars in life insurance before his death, prosecutors said in court filings. They said unidentified witnesses heard him say he wanted to be killed.
But prosecutors have also raised doubts about Minor's account. Locker's wounds didn't fit with Minor's account, and Locker's ATM card couldn't be found where Minor said he had hidden it, Assistant District Attorney Peter Casolaro wrote in court documents.