Charge dismissed against Petaluma man suspected of aiding wife’s suicide
A Sonoma County judge has dismissed a felony voluntary manslaughter charge against a Petaluma man accused of helping his ailing wife hang herself earlier this year in Bodega Bay, reducing the possible punishment for his role in her death.
David Clement, 65, still faces a charge of aiding suicide, a felony that carries a maximum sentence of three years in state prison, said his lawyer, public defender Scott Fishman.
Clement testified in court that he helped his wife, Debra Bales, kill herself Jan. 10, by tying a rope to a tree for her. She then tied the rope around her neck and jumped to her death.
Fishman argued in court the case is one of a failed health care system. He said Bales, 52, of Petaluma, became determined to die after being told she could no longer take the prescription pain medications, including the potent opioid fentanyl, she had relied on for more than two decades.
Early this month, Judge Dana Simonds granted a motion to dismiss the voluntary manslaughter charge, a felony that could have carried up to 11 years in prison, after Clement’s attorney argued prosecutors didn’t provide evidence the man was an active participant in Bales’ death. Clement tried to enter a no contest plea Wednesday for the aiding suicide charge, but Judge Robert LaForge declined to accept it after prosecutors said they needed more time in the case.
“Mr. Clement has been saying all along he wanted to take responsibility,” Fishman said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said the prosecutor is evaluating the case and is considering whether there are legal grounds to appeal the court’s decision to strike the manslaughter charge. They return to court Wednesday.
Elements of Bales’ death mirror those of a Solano County case in which a Fairfield man was arrested after helping his frail mother end her life by buying her a rifle and teaching her how to use it. His mother also had been taken off pain medications, according to Solano County officials. The man was sentenced to five days in jail and three years’ probation in a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Sonoma County prosecutors said Clement had no lawful right to act as he did during the three days he and Bales planned her death while staying at a Bodega Bay hotel. The couple initially planned to walk into the ocean together and drown. Clements also tried but failed to smother Bales with a pillow.
It’s illegal to assist in another person’s suicide in California, although a state law allows terminally ill adults to request life-ending medication from a doctor.
Fishman argued the man provided only passive assistance to Bales, and that he told investigators he wants to accept responsibility for his role in helping her end her life, which she discussed for years.
Clement was arrested Jan. 10, the morning Bales hanged herself. He called 911 to report her death and confessed his role to a dispatcher, saying “she took the other end of the rope and she jumped,” according to a recording of the call played in court.
“She just wanted out of her pain. I couldn’t see abandoning her,” he said in the recording.
Bales killed herself a day after she ran out of her prescribed pain medications, which included fentanyl, according to court testimony. She had experienced chronic pain since about 2000 when she underwent surgery for a hysterectomy, eventually becoming reliant on painkillers and anti-anxiety medications.
Bales’ quality of life had deteriorated and she was mostly bedridden with daily bouts of debilitating nausea and painful constipation, Clement testified in May during a preliminary hearing. Detectives found notes that appeared to have been written by Bales detailing different suicide methods, according to court documents.
Clement testified that Bales enlisted his help, and that he felt obligated to do what she asked.
“Mr. Clement did not take Ms. Bales’ life,” Fishman said in the 17-page motion filed July 6 in Sonoma County Superior Court to dismiss the voluntary manslaughter charge. “Ms. Bales took her own life when she decided to slip the noose around her neck, climb to the board and jump off to escape her pain.”
In the Solano County case, Diane Capitanich, 69, of Fairfield, shot and killed herself in December 2016 at a storage unit where she and her son had been living, according to local news reports.
In an interview this week, Solano County Public Defender Lesli Caldwell said Capitanich decided she wanted to die after being taken off pain medication, and she enlisted her son’s help because she was sick and had chronic pain.
Like Clement, Eric Capitanich was arrested on a charge of felony aiding suicide, but that charge was dismissed in a plea agreement with prosecutors. Capitanich ultimately pleaded no contest to a felony charge of being an accessory to a crime.
“The point is the tragedy of these lives,” Caldwell said. “They’re put into a situation where they’re in excruciating pain, and the criminal justice system is brought in to punish the person who helps them do what they wanted to do.”
You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jjpressdem.