LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Virginia Chumbley was asleep when she was shot to death in her home. The killer left the handgun in the bedroom and cried as he called 911.
“I just shot my wife,” Chris Chumbley told the Laurel County emergency operator. “Give me the police. I’m under arrest.” He later told authorities the killing was an act of mercy: His wife of two decades, who everyone knew as Jenny, had asked to die because her cancer had spread.
Her body was swollen and her pain was immense. She had to use a wheelchair when she wasn’t bed-ridden and Chumbley has said he was honoring her wish. Chumbley, 50, was charged with murder, but last month, prosecutors reached a deal that would allow him to plead guilty to manslaughter. He faces 15 years in prison when he is sentenced by a judge Thursday.
The August 2013 shooting renewed the debate over mercy killings and the right to die in a nation where five states — Oregon, Vermont, Washington, Montana and most recently California — have laws that allow doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs.
In Jenny Chumbley’s case, her husband and prosecutors disagreed over how long she had to live. He said she only had weeks, his lawyer said. Prosecutors believe it was longer than that. Chumbley’s brother, Tony Chumbley, said Chris and Jenny had watched Chris’ mother slowly die of lung cancer years before, and she told Chris she never wanted her suffering dragged out like that.
“I think Chris done it out of love for her,” said Tony Chumbley, who also lives in Laurel County, nestled in Kentucky’s Appalachian hills. “I think he would not have done it if she didn’t ask him to. If my wife got that sick and she asked me, I would hope I was man enough to do what Chris did.”
On the 911 call the night of the shooting, Chris Chumbley told the operator that his wife has cancer “all over” and had a doctor’s appointment the next day. During the 16-minute call, he asked the operator if he could go see his wife’s body one last time.
The operator said no, and he complied. Jenny Chumbley’s mother, Rita Smith, told media after a 2013 hearing that Jenny wanted chemotherapy and did not want to die. A phone number for Smith could not be located.
Laurel County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jackie Steele said he spoke to people on Jenny Chumbley’s side of the family about the plea agreement and thinks they understand it. “I can’t say they agree with it or like it,” Steele said.
There have been other recent cases of alleged mercy killings. Last year, 88-year-old William Dresser shot his wife of 68 years in her Nevada hospital bed after she had begged to die. Dresser was later cleared after prosecutors determined it wasn’t malicious and Dresser was too old and sick to face prison.
A California case that’s still pending involves Jerry Canfield, who placed roses around his ailing wife of 37 years before shooting her in the head. The 72-year-old Canfield told police the two had agreed he would end her life if an illness left her in constant pain. He is charged with murder.
Right-to-die advocates say families should have more options. “It is a very, very hard thing to watch somebody you love suffer,” said Alexa Fraser, whose father fatally shot himself last year after battling Parkinson’s disease.
Fraser works with a Denver-based group called Compassion And Choices and is advocating for a right-to-die law in her home state of Maryland. Her father, Alex, didn’t want to live in a nursing home, but he was falling frequently and was worried he would end up there.
“He reached the point where he decided he had to end his life, and that went very badly,” she said. First he tried overdosing on painkillers, and then slitting his wrists. Fraser and her husband found his body after he decided to use a gun.
“I do not want anyone to go through what my father went through,” she said.