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Are homicides among the elderly acts of mercy or malice?

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Over the last fourteen years, Becky had lost her voice, her hearing, her teeth, and her mobility after several strokes and bouts of cancer. Philip spent exhausting hours on the phone with insurance companies, trying to deal with the piles of hospital bills. They had finally found their way out.

When Becky didn’t return at her usual time, around 9:30, ManorCare asked the police for a “wellness check.” The officers arrived at the house at 1:15 am and pulled the couple from the car, cut off their clothes, injected them with Narcan, and performed CPR. An ambulance took them to the hospital. Philip was in a coma for three days.

After his police interview, nurses helped Philip dress and he was formally arrested, cuffed, and taken to the local jail. A few hours later, he was brought before a judge and charged with assisting his wife’s suicide attempt—in Pennsylvania, the crime carries a sentence of up to ten years in prison and a $25,000 fine. Philip was released on $300,000 bail. A bondsman drove him to a lawyer, then home, where he gathered his credit cards and cleaned out their savings account to pay the bail agent’s $30,000 fee. As they approached the house, Philip saw the mess the police had left. The Narcan needles still lay in the driveway. The officers had riffled through Becky and Philip’s belongings and seized their computers, cell phones, financial papers, and the mortar and pestle Philip had used to crush Becky’s pills. Their car had been towed. On the street, a slew of local reporters was camped out waiting for news.

Three days later, on January 30, 2017, Becky’s heart stopped. Philip had expected to die with her; now he was a man who had killed his wife. He thought he could live with the punishment of grief—he had done what his wife had asked—but the punishment of the law would be another matter.

Illustrations by Leigh Wells

For the past four years, I have been gathering news reports on homicides among the elderly similar to the Benights’ case. Journalists frequently refer to these deaths as “mercy killings,” a term that describes a man ending his spouse’s life once an illness has compromised her quality of life and attempting suicide afterward.1 Those who survive face legal and social consequences.

Data on such incidents among the elderly is hard to find. Typically, police departments combine such cases with other homicide-suicides, under the rubrics “family caregiver homicides” and “intimate homicides.” In 2000, Donna Cohen, a professor of child and family studies at the University of South Florida, analyzed records from medical examiners in two Florida counties and found that homicide-­suicide rates among people fifty-five and older had doubled between 1988 and 1998.

Cohen told me that there are 108 such cases every year—two each week—a majority of them involving long-­married white couples. Short of contacting every coroner, district attorney, or police chief in the country, the best method for tracking mercy killings is to compile local news reports—an unreliable approach. My clippings and Cohen’s research suggested that these incidents were becoming more frequent, a hunch corroborated by the Violence Policy Center, which analyzed news reports and found that deaths among those fifty-­five and older made up 21 percent of all homicide-suicides in 2001 and 33 percent in 2014.

Over time, a pattern became clear: the typical perpetrators were white males; their wives were often diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, dementia, or another long-running illness; couples had been married for several decades; guns were the most common weapon, but hammers and pillows were also used. In the summer of 2012, John Wise fatally shot his wife in the intensive-care unit of an Ohio hospital, where she was being treated for an aneurysm. The gun jammed when he turned it on himself.

Some couples may hope to end suffering by legal means, but assisted suicide is permissible in only seven states and the District of Columbia, where physicians are able to provide terminally ill individuals with lethal medications that they may voluntarily use to end their lives. (In Pennsylvania, where the Benights live, efforts to legalize the practice have repeatedly stalled.) The process varies by state, but generally patients must have less than six months to live, make their request at least twice, be mentally competent, and ingest the medication themselves. But even then, few doctors or medical facilities are willing to provide terminally ill patients with this service. Those who can access aid in dying tend to be highly educated and financially secure—most families, burdened with high end-of-life care expenses, don’t have the resources to pursue it.

The Benights’ case was among the more straightforward examples I encountered in my research. Becky’s suffering was undeniable, as were the facts that Philip had reluctantly carried out her wishes and had intended to end his own life as well. But even in a case without ambiguity, the term “mercy killing” seems meant to render the act inoffensive, possibly even appropriate, all things considered. But reality is inevitably messier and more complicated.

The number of elder Americans is growing rapidly, and while medical advancements have greatly improved health care, they have also prolonged the dying process. End-of-life and at-­home care, meanwhile, remain largely undercovered by insurance and underpracticed by medical professionals. For those struggling with daily activities or pain from physical decline it is often impossible to find—and afford—the help necessary to maintain quality of life. For caregivers, the labor and isolation of caregiving is seldom discussed, leaving their struggles ignored and leading a vulnerable population to reach for extreme ends. As Americans age and the health-care industry fails to address their needs, will courts and communities be forced to sanction mercy killings as inevitable outcomes?

In 1998, Philip Benight was working as a clerk at a dress shop in Washington called Uncommon Threads when he noticed a tall woman with fine features and short hair. Her name was Becky Golden, and she was fifty-four, twice divorced, with four kids. Philip was forty-two—he’d grown up in Arkansas and married at sixteen, became the father of a daughter by seventeen and a divorcé by eighteen. At nineteen, he came out as gay and left Arkansas. In the following years, he’d had a series of relationships with men, but none of them worked out.

Becky, too, had had a series of unsatisfying relationships: her first husband, whom she married at eighteen, was physically and emotionally abusive. Her second was too passive and aloof. She and Philip began an easy friendship. They went to museums and gay dance clubs, and took day trips to shop for antiques. Soon they were spending all their time together, and Philip moved into Becky’s home, a white craftsman house in Damascus, Maryland. A quirky and conspiratorial sense of humor bonded them. One day, Philip was inspecting a birdhouse in their yard when he was startled to discover that a snake had eaten the inhabitants and taken up residence. As punishment for scaring Philip, Becky burned the birdhouse down, snake and all.

They decided to get jobs that would give them summers off. The Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland hired them to drive buses. After their first school year, they took a road trip to twenty-seven states and three Canadian provinces, joined by a long-­haired Chihuahua named Logan that Becky had given Philip for his birthday.

Their contentment carried on until the fall of 2002, when Becky was diagnosed with cancer of the supraglottis, the upper part of the larynx just above the vocal cords. After a seven-hour surgery to remove the cancer, Philip came to see Becky in her hospital room, but he could only recognize her by the haircut he’d given her the week before. “Her head was as big as a basketball and her eyes were rolling around,” he said. She had a tracheostomy, a feeding tube, and a scar across her throat that stretched from ear to ear. He squeezed her hand and barely made it out the door before fainting.

Becky’s recovery was long and slow; she had to relearn how to swallow and talk. She began radiation therapy. Around this time, Philip had a heart attack. That winter their house caught fire. They cried, then laughed, then fixed it up for sale.

They needed a fresh start. Since childhood, Becky had wanted to own a log house in Pennsylvania, so they bought one in Conestoga. A few weeks later, they were married by a local justice of the peace. Although they were two eccentrics who’d never been physically intimate with each other, they were in love. Both held some traditional views, and marriage seemed to them the proper term to describe their relationship. Philip got a job with the Baltimore County Public Schools to be closer to home. Becky recovered slowly, making cards with leaves and feathers she found in the yard. They hoped that they had survived the worst. But that same year Becky had her first stroke, followed by a series of smaller strokes. Doctors placed a stent in her carotid artery hoping to prevent future strokes.

After each hospitalization, Philip stayed home to take care of Becky, returning to work when she was able to be on her own. But the after­effects of surgery and radiation plagued her. The treatments had ruined her teeth, and she had them pulled and got dentures. In 2008, she fell and broke her shoulder. In the winter of 2009, a blood clot formed in her right eye. In 2012, she had another series of strokes.

One day in 2014 Becky texted Philip at work, “Don’t call me don’t write this has been too much and I can’t take it I’m done.” Fearing the worst, Philip called the police and sped home. When officers arrived at the house, they found Becky asleep in an easy chair, her hearing aids on the table beside her. She was so startled and upset to find them standing over her that she didn’t talk to Philip for two days. Eventually, she explained that her text messages simply meant that she had finished the chores for the day. She made Philip promise: should she ever decide to end her life, he would not tell anyone. “This is my life and when I get done with it, I’m done with it, and nobody gets to decide that but me,” she said. Philip agreed, and in return he asked that if she decided to end her life that they discuss it together so that he would know that it wasn’t an impulsive decision. She accepted his terms.

Next year, Becky had a heart attack and another stroke. “It sounds like little house of horrors,” Philip told me, “because it was just one catastrophe after another.” The exertion of caring for Becky was starting to affect Philip’s health. Back pain, from driving the bus and lifting Becky out of chairs or into the shower, began to keep him up at night.

The breaking point came on the last day of August 2016. Becky had a stroke and fell down the stairs. She lay on the landing for seven hours until Philip came home from work. Blood had pooled around her and run down the basement wall. They were both horrified. She was in the hospital for more than a month. When she came home, Philip took yet another leave from work to stay with her. They asked Cigna, their insurer, to cover a home health aide; as they awaited approval, Philip feared for his job. After three weeks, Cigna denied the request, leaving the Benights with two choices: they could refinance the house to pay for the aide themselves, or they could admit Becky to a nursing home. (A spokesperson for Cigna wrote that Becky’s condition “required care and services best delivered in a Skilled Nursing Facility” and that they repeatedly informed Philip that “if he chose to take her home, he would be responsible for making provisions for custodial care.”)

Then, in November, the Lancaster County Office of Aging called to say they were coming to collect Becky. In desperation, the Benights checked themselves into Lancaster General Hospital, hoping they could then check themselves out and return home together. Instead, staff from ­ManorCare, the Office of Aging’s chosen facility, came to the hospital to take Becky. Philip watched, astonished and helpless, as his wife was wheeled away.

At ­ManorCare, Becky spent the days in a wheelchair by the nurses’ station, slowly receding from the world. The incessant light and noise—the unfamiliarity of the place—agitated her. The nurses, she said, were rude and rough; her fellow patients were unconscious or uncommunicative. (­ManorCare, a national chain of nursing homes, filed for bankruptcy in March 2018. Investigations by state inspectors and the Washington Post revealed that health-­code violations and rampant understaffing exposed patients to severe and endangering neglect for the five years preceding bankruptcy.) But worse, she was being kept at ManorCare against her will. When her youngest son, John, visited her, Becky asked him, “Did you bring the gun?” When John said no, she said, “That’s too bad.” (John Golden did not return my calls.)

“She could have done it herself if I had been ready to let her go sooner,” Philip told me. “But I wasn’t.” Philip became frenzied, imploring the insurance company to let him bring her home. Weeks after Becky’s admittance to ­ManorCare, Philip told her, “If it turns out I can’t do it, I’ll tell you and then we’ll go your way.”2

Being kept apart is what drove Philip and Becky to start making plans to end their lives, a development that conforms with researchers’ findings. Experts have come to see separation as a warning sign that suicide and violence may follow. Jacob Appel, a bioethicist and psychiatrist at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has written that the “threat of separation contributed significantly to risk” of suicide and spousal homicide among elders, and that “a spouse facing relocation to a long-term care facility was at particularly increased risk.”

At the same time, research shows that elders generally fare better when they remain in their homes. The unfamiliar surroundings of a care facility may provide medical services—what professionals call safety—but the move is disorienting and isolating, often leading to “transfer trauma,” depression, and distress. At the same time, primary caregivers whose charges are institutionalized suffer from helplessness and anxiety.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, seniors have a 70 percent chance of needing long-term care at some point in their lives. Meanwhile, insurers and Medicare have narrow criteria for covering such services, so most people are forced to pay out of pocket. The cost of a home health aide can exceed $50,000 a year and can quickly deplete a family’s financial reserves, given that about half of American household members over the age of fifty-­five don’t have retirement savings. Hospice care allows patients to live at home with their families, but to qualify, an individual must have a terminal diagnosis of six months or less to live. Becky Benight’s conditions were chronic but not terminal.

Appel believes that mercy killings are a tragic symptom of the abandonment—by medical institutions, social services, and insurance providers—that many elder couples feel as their physical independence wanes and care­taking consumes them. And, as he told me, medical institutions are woefully inept at identifying families at risk for ending their lives. “It’s important to remember that these events don’t occur suddenly.”

Like the Benights, Frances and William Dresser’s tragedy began with a separation. In 2014, Frances fell, severely damaging her spinal cord. She was admitted to Carson Tahoe Hospital in Carson City, Nevada, where she had been a volunteer for thirty years. She knew the staff; everyone was friendly. But the distance caused the couple, both in their late eighties, great anxiety. The family wanted to take their mother home; the couple’s two daughters had experience caring for elder family members. But Frances’s paralysis affected her throat, causing her to periodically choke on her own saliva. Doctors refused to release her. “It was heartbreaking to see our parents so vulnerable,” her eldest daughter, Kelly, told me. She remembers her father, William, telling Frances, “We’ll get you home, and we’ll spoon again, and I’ll stay with you the rest of my life.”

Then one evening, Kelly’s husband died suddenly of a stroke. His death compounded her parents’ depression, and they became convinced that Frances would never be allowed to return home. A few days later, William drove to a pawnshop and purchased a handgun. He had four bullets: two for Frances and two for himself. He then drove to the hospital, entered his wife’s room, and shot her in the chest. When he turned the gun on himself, it jammed. Kelly and her children had just returned from the funeral home when the phone rang. It was her sister Cindy, who had just heard from someone at the hospital: “Dad just shot Mother,” she told Kelly.

William was arrested, but Jason Woodbury, the district attorney, chose not to pursue the case. When I asked Woodbury about his decision, he said that the family provided adequate proof that Frances had wanted to die. “She was relying on him as the only person to carry it out,” he said. William’s poor health and the expense of keeping him incarcerated was also a factor.

When William was released from jail, Kelly went to see him at his house. The weather was warm, and they sat in the backyard. “I didn’t even know what to say,” Kelly told me. “And he said to me, ‘I am sure sorry about your mama and your husband.’ And I said, ‘I appreciate that, Dad.’” They shared fond memories of Frances but never mentioned the shooting again. Three years later, William stopped eating, drinking, and taking his medications. He died on April 22, 2017. Kelly’s grief sounds raw, but her firm belief that her parents “hatched their plan together” is a solace. Yet, “let me be frank,” Kelly told me, “It still fucks your head up to know your dad shot your mom.”

The surviving parties, in cases like the Benights’ and the Dressers’, represent a messy complication for communities and for the law. When so-called elderly Romeos and Juliets both manage to end their lives, the romantic narrative and the grieving process offer some closure. But if one partner dies, and the other survives the ordeal, then a reckoning must take place within the criminal justice system, which lacks the tools to deal with such complicated cases.

In a collection of essays called Family Murder: Pathologies of Love and Hate, Appel, the bioethicist and psychiatrist, writes that homicide-­suicides among the elderly fit into three, frequently overlapping categories. Some cases are situations where a spouse seeks to end their loved one’s pain. The second category includes men who wish to end their own lives and think of themselves and their partners as a unit rather than two autonomous people. The third category involves couples that have a history of domestic violence—spousal homicide-­suicide is the final assault in a series of escalating events. The latter two types often cast a shadow of ambiguity over other instances. Donna Cohen, the Florida professor who has studied mercy killings, adds that in half the cases, the perpetrators are suffering from depression.

Sometimes “mercy killing” can be a gauzy label that serves to obscure instances of gruesome violence. Across the country, elderly men have shot, bludgeoned, smothered, or poisoned their wives. These cases highlight the consequences of rigid gender roles that designated men as their wives’ protectors. “We fantasize about how we would like these people to feel about their loved ones, whether they do or not,” Appel told me. “We impose the best motives.” As a result, the cases become romantic narratives; the label allows families and communities to absorb the shock of these deaths, to ameliorate the fear of violence with a narrative of love and commitment.

Sentencing in mercy-­killing cases varies widely across the country. Often, judges consider prior incidents of domestic violence, the age and health of the husband, whether he also attempted suicide, and how much support he has from his wife’s family. But in the eyes of the law, surviving elderly husbands with long marriages, ill wives, and no record of domestic violence still have to be punished.

In some cases, faced with ambiguity, judges forgo leniency. For one Nevada judge, Dennis Kopp deserved the maximum penalty. In July 2016, Kopp shot and killed Paulette King, his wife. Ten minutes later he called 9-1-1, telling the operator that he had shot his wife and was contemplating suicide. Kopp told the arresting officers that King had been in debilitating pain, but the police were aware of a number of incidents at the house in the preceding three years, including gunfire and accusations of domestic violence. Several friends supported Kopp’s claim that King’s death was a mercy killing, but her family vehemently disagreed. In court, her sister asked for the maximum prison term. The judge sentenced Kopp to twenty-five years. He is currently incarcerated at Northern Nevada Correctional Center and will be eligible for parole in 2027. (Kopp did not respond to my request for an interview.)

Some defendants try to use a spouse’s illness to cover actual malfeasance. In Oklahoma, in 2013, Mark Schemm suffocated his wife, Monica, with a plastic bag; she had needed twenty-­four-­hour care after a severe brain injury. Initially, Schemm claimed that two men broke into their home and killed Monica. Later, he told the court that she had wanted to die because of her ailments. “We’re just hearing his story,” the local prosecutor told the press. “She can’t talk.” The jury was not convinced and found him guilty of first-­degree murder.

Donna Cohen has testified in at least twenty cases in which caregivers had ended the lives of their loved ones. In 2017, she took the stand in the case of a woman who had kicked her elderly mother to death. The woman had a history of mental illness; she had been looking after her mother for a decade. Autopsy photographs clearly showed the woman’s footprint on her mother’s chest. But at trial, Cohen asked the judge to consider the mitigating circumstances—namely, the challenges of taking care of one’s mother for so many years. “She was doing well as long as the community mental health center was open,” Cohen recalled. At the sentencing, Cohen told me, the judge said, “‘I hear what you say.’ And he reduced her sentence in half.”

In the cases Cohen has reviewed, caregivers had often “reached out multiple times to doctors, to nurses, for pain management, and had all kinds of roadblocks.” Recognizing risk factors, she believes, is the key to preventing future killings: anxiety, sudden weight loss, depression, poor hygiene, and isolation can be precursors to suicide.

Then it falls to the courts to decide what should be done with consenting adults who assert that they are ready to die but have no legal means available. Cohen also recommends that judges consider the husbands’ desire to end their wives’ suffering as a mitigating defense. “None of the men I’ve ever met have been monsters,” Cohen told me. “They’ve been captive.” Captive to the grief and fatigue of caring for a suffering spouse, captive to dirty bed­sheets, sleeplessness and exhaustion, mounting bills, and isolation. Her role on the stand is not to excuse the killing but to put the events into context to explain what she sees as the mitigating circumstances so that the judge can make a decision.

Jacob Appel warns that mercy killings don’t exist in a vacuum. After all, patients are often asked to designate a health-care proxy who might make life-and-death decisions for them in certain cases. “Prosecutorial discretion is enormous,” he told me, and the law doesn’t have any consistent means of addressing the subtleties of these types of deaths. Unacknowledged racism among police officers, journalists, and judges affects which cases are reported and how they are prosecuted. Although black women experience the highest rate of homicide of any racial group in the United States, experts say those instances are not part of this narrative. “I cannot think of one case of an African-­American perpetrator or couple where the public has portrayed it as a mercy killing,” Appel told me.

After Becky’s death, Baltimore County Public Schools fired Philip for “immoral conduct.” The phrase hung in his mind; he could think of nothing more moral than helping his wife end her life the way she wanted. He hired Alan Goldberg, a criminal defense lawyer, to help him navigate the legal process. Goldberg told me he liked Philip from the start and was convinced that everything Philip had done was for Becky’s benefit. Philip pleaded guilty to assisting in a suicide attempt—doing otherwise would have risked legal expenses Philip couldn’t afford—and their focus shifted to convincing the judge to be lenient in sentencing. They hoped that the fact that Philip had taken the same medications as Becky would make it clear there had been a pact between them. Becky’s relatives offered to testify on Philip’s behalf.

On Friday, August 25, 2017, Philip appeared in Lancaster County court, almost seven months after Becky’s death. A local reporter described him as “soft-spoken,” and “depressed”; Philip told me he was calm. When Judge Howard Knisely asked him for his plea, he answered, “Guilty.” During the twenty-minute hearing, four of Becky’s friends and family members spoke in defense of Philip. John Golden, Becky’s son, told Knisely about the instance when Becky had asked if he’d brought his gun. Roxanne Pitts, one of Becky’s cousins, told Knisely that Philip “did what Becky wanted him to do.”

Nearly three months later, Philip returned to court to receive his sentence. He wore a tie and used a walker—he was suffering from a herniated disc. The statement Philip read was brief: “I loved Becky then. I love her now. I miss her every day. But she’s where she wanted to be. She stayed here longer than she wanted to, to give me a chance to get comfortable with the idea. Eventually, I did come to see her point of view. That’s all.”

Knisely sentenced Philip to six months of house arrest. An ankle bracelet, which looked like a dog’s shock collar, tracked his movements. If Philip strayed too far from the transmission unit on the kitchen counter, his probation officer would be alerted. He was allowed two hours on Sundays to run errands outside the house, to take out the trash, shovel snow, or fetch birdseed from the garage. He had to turn in receipts to prove his whereabouts. He received special permission to use the back porch so that his toy fox terrier, Asa, could go out.

Philip spent the first three months of house arrest isolated and in his pajamas. He barely ate or bathed. Then, little by little, and as he began telling me Becky’s story, last spring, he came back to himself. In May, I met Philip at his home. He was neatly dressed, with color in his cheeks. His six months of house arrest were up, and we rode into town to see his probation officer, Janelle Madara. Though Madara had declined my previous requests for an interview, she let me watch as she pulled on rubber gloves and, with a blunt-ended pair of scissors, hacked off Philip’s ankle bracelet. He still had to complete five years of supervision, which meant he had to notify her each time he planned to travel more than thirty miles from home.

Philip asked Madara if he could accompany me to the Brandywine Museum after the appointment—he and Becky had often visited the Andrew Wyeth art collection there—and she approved the trip. On our way, we stopped for lunch and ordered salads, sandwiches, and beer—Philip’s first legal drink in six months. We clinked our glasses, but neither of us had a good toast to offer. The future seemed tenuous. There’s not a lot of work for a sixty-two-year-old disabled former school-bus driver with a record. I asked Philip if he was pleased to be rid of the ankle bracelet that had been his constant companion for the past six months. “The bracelet somehow felt like my last connection to Becky,” he said.

At the museum, Philip showed me his favorite views of the river and pointed out paintings that he and Becky had enjoyed. After six months of isolation, Philip is awkward and hesitant to venture out. John Weigel, Philip’s therapist, told me that what Philip is experiencing now is not remorse for Becky’s death but rather a deep sense of guilt that she did not die the way she had wanted to, at home with her husband. The one thing that gives him hope is an idea for an organization called Becky’s Foundation, which would help other couples navigate the health-care system and enable them to stay together at home.

As I watched Philip walk freely through the museum’s galleries, I thought of what his lawyer had told the judge: “He expected to punish himself more harshly than any court could.”

* The original version of this article incorrectly identified the Andrew Wyeth collection at the Brandywine Museum as Andrew Wyatt. We regret the error.

 is the author of The Good Death: An Exploration of Dying in America.

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