SANTA ROSA (AP) — A Northern California man is facing trial for manslaughter after he told authorities he helped his ailing wife hang herself because she lost her longtime prescription to painkillers and didn’t want to endure withdrawal symptoms.
David Clement, 65, was arrested on Jan. 10 at a popular seaside getaway along Northern California’s coast after he called 911 to report he helped his 52-year-old wife kill herself by tying one end of the rope to a tree, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported Wednesday.
A judge on Tuesday ordered Clement to stand trial on charges of manslaughter and assisting a suicide. It’s legal for doctors to prescribe terminally ill patients fatal doses of medications. Any other kind of assistance is a felony.
Recordings of Clement’s lengthy 911 call and an interview with investigators were played during the four-hour hearing in Sonoma County superior court in Santa Rosa.
Clement told investigators that he and Debra Bales, who lived with her mother, were longtime friends who married six years ago so she could access his health insurance plan to continue receiving prescription painkillers. Clement said Bales was bedridden and dependent on the opioid pills, which she took to ease chronic pain caused by a hysterectomy surgery nearly 20 years ago.
Clement said he quit his grocery store manager job in October after suffering what he called a manic episode. He said the resignation was “irrational,” which resulted in the loss of his health insurance. He also said he lost his apartment and ended up living in a homeless shelter.
With the loss of Clement’s insurance, Bales lost the doctors who prescribed her painkillers. Clement said the doctors who Bales visited had a “new philosophy” regarding painkillers and declined to prescribe her more. Clement said Bales took her last remaining pill the day before she killed herself.
Clement’s lawyers argued that suicide is legal and asked the judge to dismiss the voluntary manslaughter charges.
Lawyer Scott Fishman, one of Clement’s lawyers, also argued that the country’s health care system was to blame for continuing to prescribe Bales prescription painkillers for so long.
“The defense views this as a massive failure — a systematic failure — of the health care system,” Fishman said.
Prosecutor Bob Waner said Clement’s actions weren’t compassionate.
“Mr. Clement had no lawful right to do what he did,” Waner said regardless of Clement’s motive. “This is a man who escorted her outside and tied a knot he was certain would not break.”
Clement said he agreed to help Bales kill herself because he felt guilty about losing the health insurance. He said Clement called him in late 2017 and said she wanted to drown in the ocean.
Clement told detective that he agreed to a suicide pact and the couple agreed to walk into the Pacific Ocean together and drown. They rented a room in the Inn at the Tides in Bodega Bay, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) north of San Francisco. After they checked in, the couple decided Bales was too weak to walk to an appropriate beach and they didn’t have a car.
She asked him to pierce her heart with scissors, he said. Instead, they settled on suffocation and Clement purchased duct tape at a nearby store. He taped her nose and mouth and then straddled her while smothering her face with a pillow, he said. He stopped when she began to struggle, he said.
“My conscience wouldn’t let me do it,” he told detectives in the recorded interview.
Clements said he attempted to smother her two other times during the three days they spent at the hotel. On the last day they went outside to a parking lot where Bales tied a rope around her neck and Clement fastened the other end to a tree, he said. Clement said Bales was sitting on a bench raised about four feet from the ground when she jumped.
“She took the other end of the rope and she jumped,” Clement said to the 911 dispatcher. “She just wanted out of her pain. I couldn’t see abandoning her.”