If it were only a matter of law, the public would not feel stranded. He killed her, after all. Roswell Gilbert, a 76-year-old retired electronics engineer living in a seaside condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., considered murdering his wife Emily for at least a month before shooting her through the head with Luger as she sat on their couch. The Gilberts had been husband and wife for 51 years. They were married in 1934, the year after Calvin Coolidge died, the year after Prohibition was lifted, the year that Hank Aaron was born. At 73, Emily had Alzheimer's disease and osteoporosis; her spinal column was gradually collapsing. Roswell would not allow her to continue life as "a suffering animal," so he committed what is called a mercy killing The jury saw only the killing; they felt Gilbert had mercy on himself. He was sentenced to 25 years with no chance of parole, which would make him 101 by the time he got out. The Governor has been asked to grant clemency. Most Floridians polled hope that Gilbert will go free.
Not that there ever was much of a legal or practical question involved. Imagine the precedent set by freeing a killer simply because he killed for love. Othello killed for love, though his passion was loaded with a different motive. Does any feeling count, or is kindness alone an excuse for murder? Or age: maybe someone has to be 76 and married 51 years to establish his sincerity. There are an awful lot of old people and long marriages in Florida. A lot of Alzheimer's disease and osteoporosis as well. Let Gilbert loose, the fear is, and watch the run on Lugers.
Besides, the matter of mercy killing is getting rough and out of hand. Nobody seems to use poison anymore. In Fort Lauderdale two years ago, a 79-year-old man shot his 62-year-old wife in the stairwell of a hospital; like Emily Gilbert, she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. In San Antonio four years ago, a 69-year-old man shot his 72-year-old brother to death in a nursing home. Last June a man in Miami put two bullets in the heart of his three-year-old daughter who lay comatose after a freak accident. An organization that studies mercy killings says that nine have occurred this year alone. You cannot have a murder every time someone feels sorry for a loved one in pain. Any fool knows that.
Yet you also feel foolish watching a case like Gilbert's (if any case can be said to be like another) because, while both feet are planted firmly on the side of law and common sense, both are firmly planted on Gilbert's side as well. The place the public really stands is nowhere: How can an act be equally destructive of society and wholly human? The reason anyone would consider going easy on Gilbert is that we can put ourselves in his shoes, can sit at his wife's bedside day after day, watching the Florida sun gild the furniture and listening to the Atlantic lick the beach like a cat. Emily dozes. He looks at her in a rare peaceful pose and is grateful for the quiet.