Motivational speaker Jeffrey Locker was weighed down by debt, afraid for his family's future and determined to die, prosecutors say.
But the down-and-out stranger he hired to help him stage a suicide that would appear to have been a robbery is still a murderer, they said at the start of a trial that is airing questions about the legal limits of assisted suicide in an unusual context.
While many assisted suicide cases involve medical providers or loved ones helping terminally ill people end their lives, the case surrounding Locker's death is anything but. He was found stabbed in the chest in his car in July 2009, his hands tied behind his back, hours after he approached Kenneth Minor on an East Harlem street with an eerie proposition: Locker would pay to be killed violently so his family could collect millions of dollars in insurance money, both prosecutors and Minor's lawyer say.
"This plan was misguided, to say the least," Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Peter Casolaro said in an opening statement. "The evidence is going to show that Jeffrey Locker was a foolish, dishonest, pathetic man, but that Kenneth Minor is a vicious and callous one."
Minor, 36, a former computer technician with a record of mostly drug arrests, acknowledges taking part in Locker's death but says his conduct doesn't amount to murder.
He maintains he held a knife while Locker repeatedly lunged into it, an account prosecutors contest but Minor's lawyer says a noted forensic science expert will support from the witness stand.
"This was a stupid, stupid decision that Mr. Minor made," his lawyer, Daniel J. Gotlin, told jurors Thursday. But Locker, he said, was "the ultimate con man."
Locker, 52, focused on "bringing spirituality into the business world," according to his former website. He gave presentations on handling workplace stress and frustration, and he co-authored a 1998 self-help book.
But he was reeling financially, telling a court he was "severely in credit card debt" after investing in a $300 million Ponzi scheme run by Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync mastermind Lou Pearlman. While Locker said he was an innocent, duped investor, he was facing a federal bankruptcy court trustee's demands to return at least $121,200 the court said he had made from his stake in Perlman's enterprise.
Locker's checking-account balance plummeted from more than $67,000 to less than $2,500 between January 2009 and July of that year, and he maxed out two credit cards with $11,000 and $4,500 limits, according to documents introduced in court Thursday.
And Locker would leave behind signs of a strategic suicide: In the last months of his life, he took out about $14 million in life insurance — which his family has been unable to collect — researched funeral arrangements online, gave his wife instructions on how to divvy up and shield their assets "when I am gone," and discussed making farewell videos with his son, prosecutors say. The family has declined to comment.
Locker made his intentions chillingly clear when he approached Minor on a street near a public housing complex: He wanted to "do a Kevorkian," Minor later told detectives, referring to assisted-suicide advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Locker had already tried to engage another stranger for the job, but that man had taken his money and made off, authorities say.
Minor told investigators he initially brushed Locker off but started to feel sympathetic as the self-help expert detailed his money problems and family worries.
So, Minor said, he agreed to help in exchange for Locker's automatic teller machine card and personal identification number. He ultimately got about $1,000 and was caught by using the card.
Under New York law, "causing or aiding" a suicide is a form of manslaughter punishable by a maximum of 15 years in prison; there's also a lesser offense of "promoting a suicide attempt." Minor offered to plead guilty to manslaughter, but prosecutors rebuffed that; a judge also turned down his bid to get the murder charge thrown out.
That leaves second-degree murder as the only charge against him — and under New York law, aiding a suicide is considered a defense to second-degree murder, though not to any other crime.
"Whether you like it or not, it is a defense," Gotlin told jurors Thursday.
Prosecutors say it shouldn't be a successful one. They say Minor actively stabbed Locker seven times, crossing the line between killing and facilitating a suicide.
"He's a 36-year-old, streetwise person that is eager, and is willing, to participate in this crime and that unhesitatingly chose to kill Locker so that he could profit," Casolaro said.
Criminal cases surrounding assisted suicide have often concerned terminally ill people; in some of the best-known instances, Kevorkian was acquitted of several assisted suicides before a 1999 murder conviction sent the Michigan doctor to prison for eight years.
But a smattering of other cases around the country have involved murkier circumstances.
Several have led to murder convictions, including that of a Texas man who said a despondent woman talked him into shooting her in 1985 by offering her car and a couple hundred dollars.
But others have been handled as manslaughter cases, including that of a man accused of giving a rifle to a suicidal 17-year-old and telling him to "blow his head off" in 1988 in a village near Syracuse, New York. The man wasn't charged with murder but was convicted of manslaughter, a conviction upheld by the state's highest court.
If convicted, Minor could face life in prison.