Fourteen months after a stroke paralyzed the right side of his body, 66-year-old Robert McLester put a 9 mm Smith & Wesson pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.
The act tore his family apart.
Many thought he was the type of man who could survive hardship: a retired Navy officer, a divemaster who volunteered at the Tennessee Aquarium. He always told his daughters to "never surrender, never quit."
But after the stroke, he changed. He said he wanted to end it all. He couldn't live with his failed body any longer.
So on July 29, 2012, his wife of 42 years brought him a gun.
What the law says (assisted suicide story)IN TENNESSEEA person commits the offense of assisted suicide who:1) Intentionally provides another person with the means by which such person directly and intentionally brings about such person's own death; or2) Intentionally participates in a physical act by which another person directly and intentionally brings about such person's own death; and3) Provides the means or participates in the physical act with:a. Actual knowledge that the other person intends to bring about such person's own death; andb. The clear intent that the other person bring about such person's own death.Source: Tennessee Code Annotated, 39-13-216IN GEORGIA1) "Assists" means the act of physically helping or physically providing the means.2) "Health care provider" means any person licensed, certified or registered under Chapter 9, 10A, 11, 11A, 26, 28, 30, 33, 34, 35, 39 or 44 of Title 43.3) "Suicide" means the intentional and willful termination of one's own life.b. Any person with actual knowledge that person intends to commit suicide who knowingly and willfully assists such person in the commission of such person's suicide shall be guilty of a felony, and, upon conviction thereof, shall be punished by imprisonment for not less than one nor more than 10 years.Source: Georgia Code Annotated, 16-5-5Timeline of McLester caseMay 30, 2011: Robert McLester has a stroke that leaves his right side paralyzed.July 29, 2012: McLester shoots himself in the head.July 2013: Sequatchie County Sheriff's detectives reopen the case at the district attorney's request after learning that Carol McLester may have assisted in her husband's death. Carol tells investigators she brought Robert the gun shortly before he died.September 2013: A grand jury decides not to indict Carol on the criminal charge of assisted suicide.Sources: Sequatchie County Sheriff's Department, Bonnie Lewallen, Sequatchie County Medical Examiner
And now his daughter is fighting to put her mother in jail for helping him die.
•••Assisting in a suicide is a crime in Tennessee. It's a Class D felony, and anyone found guilty can be sentenced to between two and 12 years in prison.
But the charge is rare -- in the past five years, only two people have been indicted on suspicion of assisted suicide in Tennessee, and in one of those cases the charge was later dismissed by prosecutors, state records show.
Georgia has a similar law on the books; there, the sentence for assisted suicide runs between one and 10 years.
But it's tough to make an assisted suicide charge stick, prosecutors say. The law requires the defendant to take an active part in the suicide or actively provide the means for the victim to commit suicide. Additionally, prosecutors must prove that the defendant knew the victim planned to commit suicide and knowingly helped the victim die.
But beyond the burden of proof, the real issue, prosecutors and experts say, is that many people -- including grand jurors -- can understand why a defendant would help someone she loves die.
"There is a disconnect between the general cultural sense and [the law]," said Ralph Hood, a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. "With agonizing pain or terminal illness, what happens is the culture simply tacitly approves of people finding ways to end their lives. And you get what amounts to jury nullification. People refuse to bring back indictments."
In Robert McLester's case, a grand jury in September 2013 declined to indict his wife, Carol McLester, on the charge of assisted suicide, despite what prosecutors called a "pretty cut-and-dried case."
And that keeps their daughter, Bonnie Lewallen, up at night.
"I just want justice for my dad," she said.
•••Lewallen lives right next door to her mother, who has since remarried, on a little road in a rural corner of Graysville.
The two haven't spoken since the day after Robert McLester died.
Carol McLester declined to talk with the Times Free Press, but did say that she loved her first husband.
"I was married to that man for 42 years," she said, choking back tears. "I loved him. Leave me alone."
Robert McLester's other daughter, Robin Murray, also declined to speak with the paper at length. But she said assisted suicide had nothing to do with her dad's death.
Lewallen said her dad was the kind of man who would dress up like a vampire on Halloween and take a trip to the pharmacy -- in a full cape, with fake teeth and fake blood dripping down his chin.
"He was always joking," Lewallen said.
Before his stroke, Robert McLester lived an active life, full of hunting and fishing and keeping up the house. Often, he and Carol would fly to the Bahamas. He volunteered as a diver for the Tennessee Aquarium until one day in 2011, when he had a stroke while driving back from a volunteer shift.
The stroke left him half-paralyzed and his life changed dramatically. He couldn't walk afterward, and he lost the use of the right side of his body. He was incontinent and confined to a recliner, where he spent most of his time watching TV.
His right hand was permanently clenched shut and he would often get tremors in his right leg. But he could balance with a cane and shuffle a few steps. And he still got outside on his side-by-side ATV.
He would shake hands with his left, said Jason Jones, Lewallen's boyfriend.
"But he always used to say one day he'd give me a proper handshake," Jones said.
"He was still holding on," Lewallen said.
Still, he did seem depressed, she said.
One day, Robert McLester called the family together and told them he was thinking about suicide. He tried to tell Lewallen that she would be taken care of, that he would pay off her house after he died.
At the time, Lewallen couldn't listen.
"That's not going to happen," she remembers telling him.
•••On the issue of suicide, Americans are split -- 62 percent believe a person has a moral right to end his own life if he's suffering great pain with no hope of improvement, and 56 percent believe a person has that right if she's suffering from an incurable disease, according to the Pew Research Center.
But only 38 percent believe a person has the right to die because living has become a burden. And even fewer -- 32 percent -- believe suicide is acceptable when a person has become a burden on his family.
Through the years, high-profile cases of physician-assisted suicide have kept the debate alive. In November, Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, rekindled that debate by publicizing her decision to move from California to Oregon so she could take advantage of its laws that allow physician-assisted suicide. She took lethal drugs and died Nov. 1.
Public opinion can be a hurdle in the courtroom, said David Raybin, a Nashville attorney and former prosecutor.
After Robert McLester died, Carol McLester told investigators from the Sequatchie County Sheriff's Department that she brought him a gun, stepped out of the room to wash dishes and heard the pop of the gunshot a few minutes later.
While she knew he was suicidal, she said she didn't know why her husband wanted the gun that day. She thought he might have wanted to clean it, she told detectives.
That makes the case trickier, said Lesley Tiller, assistant district attorney in Sullivan County.
"It could be the grand jury didn't feel they had any proof that she intentionally participated," Tiller said.
She prosecuted an assisted suicide case back in 2011 -- one of the two in Tennessee during the last five years where grand juries returned indictments on the charge. In that case, she ended up dismissing the charge and pursuing a vehicular homicide charge instead.
But Lewallen believes her mother did push her father to pull the trigger during the 13 months after his stroke.
"She kept telling him, 'If you had the [courage] you'd have done it by now, you'd have done it by now,'" Lewallen said. "She constantly beat him down. She wouldn't let him have any hope. And now she's still walking around like she didn't do anything."
Steve Strain, the 12th Judicial District assistant district attorney who presented McLester's case to the Sequatchie County grand jury, said there wasn't much question about Carol's intent.
"She said, 'I brought him the gun,'" he said. "And she basically knew what he was going to do. I don't think there was much issue about that."
But, he said, that doesn't mean a grand jury will decide to bring a charge.
"I think the problem is if you have -- if it's a family member and someone who is basically terminally ill, the community has more sympathy toward that," he said.
District Attorney General Mike Taylor agreed.
"It's not a legal issue," he said. "It's getting a jury to agree -- they may say, 'Yes, that's the law, but we're not going to return an indictment on it. We don't feel that's a case that needs to be criminally prosecuted.' That's probably the way they look at it."
A grand jury is the first filter for a criminal case. Grand jurors, who are randomly selected from the ranks of Sequatchie County residents, are tasked with deciding two things: whether a crime has been committed and whether there is probable cause to charge a particular person or persons with that crime.
It takes the votes of 12 of the 13 grand jury members to bring an indictment. So if two people vote against, the suspect is not charged, Strain said.
In that case, the prosecutor can either drop the case or present it again to the grand jury. Barring some new evidence, the district attorney's office has no plans to re-present the McLester case, Strain said. He added that he can't control how the grand jury votes.
"The perception is grand juries do exactly what we tell them," he said, "but I've been doing this for long time and they don't. They have a mind of their own."
Lewallen said she was devastated when she got the news that her mother was not indicted.
A county resident can present a case directly to a grand jury without going through the district attorney's office, but it's an involved and complicated process.
Lewallen has considered giving it a try before the four-year statute of limitations runs out. She has even gathered written witness statements from other family members to help back up her argument.
Maybe, she thinks, the grief and anger of a daughter can do what the district attorney's office could not.
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