By BRIAN SKOLOFF
PHOENIX — An 86-year-old man who carried out a mercy killing by shooting his ailing wife in the head was sentenced to probation on Friday after an emotional hearing where family members tearfully spoke on his behalf.
George Sanders could have faced more than 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter. The judge opted for probation.
The World War II veteran told authorities his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969, and the couple moved from Washington state to the retirement community of Sun City outside Phoenix in the 1970s for the warm, dry climate.
Virginia Sanders, 81, had been diagnosed with gangrene on her foot just a few days before the shooting.
In a videotaped confession, Sanders said his wife begged him to kill her. Wrapped in a blanket as he sat being questioned by a detective, Sanders appeared frail and tired in the hours after he shot his wife in the head.
"She never wanted to outlive me and be left at the mercy of someone else," he said.
"We loved each other so much," Sanders said. "It was a wonderful life in spite of all the hard things we had at the end."
Sanders was initially charged with first-degree murder for the Nov. 9 shooting but later pleaded guilty to manslaughter in what attorneys on both sides have called a "mercy killing."
"We did a lot of things together, always loved each other," he told the detective, adding that her health began to deteriorate over the last few years. "I took care of her through that day and night," Sanders said.
Eventually, as his own health deteriorated, he said the couple hired a caregiver. He said his wife had been diagnosed with gangrene on her foot just a few days before the shooting and was set to be admitted to a hospital, then a nursing home.
"It was just the last straw," Sanders said. "She didn't want to go to that hospital ... start cutting her toes off."
He said he talked it over with his wife and she begged him to kill her.
"I said, 'I can't do it honey,'" he told police. "She says, 'Yes you can.'"
Sanders said he got his revolver and wrapped a towel around it so the bullet wouldn't go into the kitchen.
"She says, 'Is this going to hurt,' and I said, 'You won't feel a thing,'" he said.
"She was saying, 'Do it. Do it. Do it.' And I just let it go," Sanders added.
He sat in the room at the sheriff's office for about five hours as his wife was hospitalized. The bullet didn't kill her. She died a few days later. After several hours, the detective came back in.
"Virginia was at this present moment currently still alive but not expected to make it. She's not expected to live," the detective told him.
Sanders appeared distraught.
"I think of her laying in her bed and it haunts me. I've taken care of her all these years and to think of somebody else doing it that really doesn't care," he said. "Terrible."
A few minutes later, a deputy came into the room and handcuffed him, then led him out the door to be fingerprinted.
"I sit here and I don't know how I could have done that," Sanders said. "It seemed to make sense at the time."