Thursday, January 19, 2006

Court rules girl has right to die

Court rules girl has right to die

By Jason Szep

BOSTON (Reuters) - Massachusetts' officials and doctors were deciding on Wednesday when to end life support for an 11-year-old girl beaten into a vegetative state, following a court ruling that she had a right to die.

Doctors will run tests on Haleigh Poutre after the Supreme Judicial Court, the state's top court, decided on Tuesday that her breathing machines and feeding tubes could be disconnected.

The court's decision adds fuel to America's divisive "right to die" debate and could lead to murder charges against her stepfather, Jason Strickland, a 31-year-old auto mechanic accused of battering Poutre.

The girl's brain was found partly sheared when she was hospitalized on September 11. Her body was covered with burns, cuts and bruises and her teeth were broken.

Strickland had fought to keep Poutre on life support -- a move that would have allowed him to avoid a charge of murder.

"We're getting an update on her current condition. We want to be very clear her condition is unchanged and if it takes complete retesting we will do that," said Denise Monteiro, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Social Services.

Doctors have said the girl would die within a few days once life support is removed.

The state's highest court sided with a juvenile court which decided in September that the Department of Social Services could disconnect Poutre's life support, court documents show.

Strickland's wife -- the child's maternal aunt and sole legal guardian -- was found shot dead on September 22 with her grandmother in an apparent murder-suicide a day after police accused her of hitting Haleigh with a baseball bat.


The case was as much about who has legal rights to the girl, who is now in state custody, as it is about her ultimate fate and whether the state can remove the ventilator and feeding tube keeping her alive.

It carries echoes of the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman taken off life support in March after a legal battle that galvanized the Christian right and drew in President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress.

Strickland's lawyers had asked the Supreme Judicial Court to overturn the juvenile court judge's decision that the man has no legal rights over the girl. Strickland, who never adopted the child, wanted to be legally recognized as her defacto father because he lived with her for four years.

If the court had granted his wish, it would have allowed Stickland to decide whether to take Haleigh off life support.

Poutre's birth mother, 29-year-old Allison Avrett, lost custody of the girl when she was four years old because of allegations of abuse, said the Department of Social Services, whose lawyers have consulted Avrett in the case.

Avrett has said she would prefer the removal of Poutre's life support system.

The court heard that Poutre's doctors "have consistent medical opinion about her current condition" and all had agreed she will not regain consciousness.

The Massachusetts case is important because the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to make a definitive ruling on the issue of ending life support, said Louis Aucoin of the Institute for Human Security at Tufts University's Fletcher School.

"It raises the issue of how you interpret constitutions, both state and federal," he said. "It's a very, very important issue in light of current developments in the Supreme Court."

He was referring to debate over how Bush's recent appointments to the Supreme Court will influence how the nation's top court interprets the constitution.