Andrew Dys

December 11, 2013

‘Mercy killing’ or not, Rock Hill murder-suicide still frightening

Mary Martin, 81, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was killed this week by her 91-year-old husband, who then turned the gun on himself.

In November 2008, an elderly wheelchair-bound Clover man named Gustave Hartner had two things in front of him – a 90-year-old wife he loved, who was suffering from dementia, Parkinson’s disease and other ailments; and a loaded pistol.

Hartner shot his wife, Mildred, once in the back of the head as she slept. He shot the family dog and wrote a note that ended with the words, “God, forgive me.” He had planned to shoot himself, but instead he took an overdose of prescription medication.

Hartner was charged with murder and later pleaded guilty but mentally ill to a reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter. Hartner, now 78, is serving seven years in state prison. The plea deal took into account his clear and undoubted love for his wife – but prosecutors and police said it was still death by gunshot. Hartner had decided to kill.

Guns, even pointed at those one loves unconditionally, kill.

On Monday in Rock Hill, the 91-year-old husband of Mary Martin, a former chairwoman of the Winthrop University Board of Trustees who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, shot her as she lay in bed. He then shot and killed himself and was found in that same bed, according to a police report.

So far, as the case remains under investigation, police have not conclusively determined that James H. Martin’s shooting of his wife, 81, was a mercy killing.

But for a York County prosecutor and a Rock Hill church leader – both of whom have dealt with murder-suicide and murder allegedly to end suffering – there is no such thing as a mercy killing.

“The idea that someone, even a spouse who loves the other person, would make the decision to take the life of the other is frightening,” said Willy Thompson, the 16th Circuit deputy solicitor who prosecuted Hartner. “The victim isn’t given a chance to prepare for death, to talk with family, any of that.

“Even if there is illness involved, the victim can’t prepare and no one around them can prepare.”

In the Martin case, there is no one to prosecute because the killer committed suicide.

Relatives of Mary Martin declined to comment Wednesday.

South Carolina has the worst record of all states when it comes to men killing women, according to the Violence Policy Center, a group that studies gun deaths.

In 2011, South Carolina’s rate of men killing women was twice the national average. Sixty-one women died at the hands of men that year. In almost all the cases, like the Martin deaths this week, the man uses a gun to kill the wife. In some cases the man then uses the gun on himself.

“Depression and the strain of providing care for a failing spouse have been cited by experts as a significant contributing factor to murder-suicide among older persons,” the Violence Policy Center study concluded.

Killing is not mercy, even if the person pulling the trigger can justify it, said the Rev. Tom Sherer, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Rock Hill. In 2011, Jeffrey Goldsmith shot and killed his girlfriend, Linda Dixon, then killed himself. Sherer, who pastored to Dixon’s family and coworkers, said no one is “judge, jury and executioner.”

“No one has that right to make the ultimate decision,” Sherer said Wednesday. “Even someone who loves the other person. That decision is not in man’s hands. His wife may have been terribly sick, but he made a decision for her that no man should make.”

Homicide and suicide are not the answers – even at the end of life when there is pain, said Sherer, whose own mother suffered before dying from cancer.

Police continue to investigate the Martin murder-suicide, said Executive Officer Mark Bollinger, spokesman for the Rock Hill Police Department. It is unclear if the gun used in the shootings belonged to James Martin, he said, or why Martin had a gun in the first place.

Acquaintances described the Martins, who had been married 14 years, as together often and a team.

And while the Violence Policy Center reports most gun deaths of women at the hands of men come after domestic violence or other problems, there is no record in York County courts of any disputes between the Martins.

James Martin had “chronic health problems” consistent with old age, York County Coroner Sabrina Gast said. Other people who knew him said his mobility and dexterity had waned in recent years.

Yet the death of a woman at a man’s hands is three times as likely if there is a gun in the house, the Violence Policy Center says.

If there had been no gun in the house Monday, maybe Mary Martin would be alive. Maybe James Martin would be alive.

Now James Martin will not be remembered around Rock Hill this week as a longtime supervisor at the old Mobay and Bayer plants, a golfer, a World War II bombardier – and the patriot who served his country through that war that saved the world from fascists.

Sadly, what people will remember from this week is his use of a gun in his own home.

And Mary Martin – teacher, principal, Winthrop alum, former trustee chairwoman – is not remembered this week just for what she gave to her students, her school and her hometown in so many decades of love and service – but for how she died.

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