A state appeals court on Thursday ordered a new trial for the man convicted of second-degree murder for helping Long Island motivational speaker Jeffrey Locker kill himself in a grisly 2009 suicide-for-hire stabbing in East Harlem.
Defendant Kenneth Minor claimed he merely held a knife for Locker to thrust his body on. Assisting suicide is manslaughter, not murder, in New York, and the appeals court said the judge wrongly told jurors any "active" participation in the death made it murder.
"The affirmative defense exists to protect from murder charges those who assist others to commit suicide," the Appellate Division 1st Department in Manhattan wrote. "A person obviously cannot provide assistance to one committing suicide without 'doing something.' "
"The jury could have been confused," the court added, "into thinking that defendant's taking the knife out of the glove compartment, or holding the knife, would constitute murder and not assisted suicide."
Prosecutors at the trial conceded that Locker, 53, of Woodmere, went to Harlem to find someone to help kill him, hoping his family would be able to cash in on life insurance to bail them out of mounting debt and financial problems.
They argued Minor, now 40, plunged the knife into Locker, and did not just hold it. The appeals court, in its 4-0 ruling, said forensic evidence could have supported a murder conviction, but Supreme Court Justice Carol Berkman's faulty instruction effectively "gutted the defense."
Minor is serving a sentence of 20 years to life. The maximum sentence for manslaughter is 15 years.
Defense lawyer Daniel Gotlin, who warned Berkman at the 2011 trial that the assisted suicide statute did not draw a distinction between "active" and "passive" conduct, said he was "extremely pleased" and urged negotiations over a possible manslaughter plea.
"It is our hope that we will now be able to reach a fair and appropriate resolution of this case based upon the actual law and the facts," he said.
A spokesman for District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said prosecutors, who could seek review of the ruling at the state Court of Appeals in Albany, were still considering their options.
Locker, married with three children, was found dead with six stab wounds to his chest in his car in a rough section of East Harlem on July 16, 2009. He had $18 million in life insurance, including $12 million acquired just before his death.
The recent policies would not pay out for a suicide, so Locker wanted his death to look like a murder.
Minor, a 6-foot, 4-inch ex-con and father of two, received Locker's ATM card for helping with the killing.
The assisted suicide statute covers "causing or aiding . . . another person to commit suicide."
By saying it covered only "passive" help, the judge was turning conduct such as opening a bottle of pills for a relative into murder, the appeals court said.
"The court," they wrote, "effectively rewrote the statute."