YORK -- A 73-year-old Clover man was sentenced to seven years in prison last Thursday after he pleaded guilty but mentally ill to shooting his 90-year-old wife in what his attorney and friends say was a mercy killing.
But prosecutors argued the woman's death only provided mercy to her husband, who would no longer have to care for her.
Gustave Hartner shot his wife in the head as she slept in their Clover home last November because he wasn't able to care for her anymore, and because he didn't want to see her continue to suffer from ailments that included Parkinson's Disease and dementia, according to court testimony.
He then shot and killed his dog and planned to shoot himself, but tried to overdose on prescription medication instead, according to testimony. Hartner left behind a note explaining his actions, closing it with "God forgive me."
"It is a mercy killing. Although unlawful, immoral, it still is a mercy killing," said Harry Dest, Hartner's attorney. "Maybe sometimes people can love somebody too much."
Hartner originally was charged with murder, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
He told the court he's now a man wracked with guilt.
"I may never get over the remorse I feel," a wheelchair-bound Hartner read from prepared remarks before his sentencing, often breaking into tears. "People tell you it will pass, but I don't think so. I love her so much. She was really my whole life."
Wife of 43 years
Hartner's comments reflect what his attorney and neighbors said was a deep love for his wife of 43 years. They described a man who spent all his time devoted to his ailing wife's comfort, bathing her, clothing her, painting her fingernails and taking care of every other need. But Hartner's own ailments, which testimony said include chronic knee and back pain, along with depression and post traumatic stress disorder, led him to feel overwhelmed by the situation, friends said.
"I've never known a couple that had the romance that they had ... how much they loved each other. You could see it in their eyes," neighbor Diane Jordan said in court during an emotional plea to Judge Larry Hyman Jr. for a lenient sentence. "I think in his own mind he thought he was doing the honorable thing."
Several times, Hartner checked his wife into an assisted living center only to bring her back home almost immediately, saying she wasn't getting adequate care. But he'd also complain that he wasn't getting any help caring for her at home, according to court testimony.
"Ultimately, he apparently came to the end of his rope, at least in his mind," said prosecutor Willy Thompson.
Thompson disagreed with the assessment that Mildred Hartner's death was a mercy killing. Despite her medical conditions, Thompson argued, she was still a capable person. The only mercy in the situation was for Hartner, who would no longer have to care for his wife, Thompson said.
"She had no chance to prepare for death. She had no chance to prepare for life after death," he said, getting choked up at one point. "The mercy wasn't for her because she still had a lot left."
Hartner told police that his wife had previously asked him to shoot her, according to testimony. Thompson doubted that, saying there was never any evidence Mildred Hartner wanted to die. But after court, friends said they believed she had made the request.
"She felt like she was a burden to him," said Debra Sanders, who was Mildred's hair stylist and was the first person Hartner called after he shot his wife.
As part of Hartner's plea deal, prosecutors asked for a sentence cap of 15 years, citing his advanced age and his myriad medical conditions. Hyman said his sentencing decision was "as difficult a decision as any judge has to make."
"I am convinced beyond any doubt that Mr. Hartner desperately loved his wife and that she loved him," Hyman said before announcing the seven-year sentence.
"My heart wants to tell me that you acted wrongfully, but honorably," he told Hartner. "However, we must consider the fact that this was a wrongful act, as wrongful an act as our statutes provide for."
Dest said he'd hope for a lighter sentence that would allow Hartner to still have a life outside prison afterward.
"I'm not so sure this sentence will do that. But we understand the judge's reasoning," Dest said after court.
Hartner's neighbors also felt the sentence was too harsh.
"That's a death sentence for him, most likely," neighbor Gregory Jordan said after court.
Earlier, as Hartner addressed the judge before sentencing, often pausing to wipe tears from his eyes, he said he believes his wife has forgiven him.
"Now her suffering has ended and she walks with God," he said. "I know she's in heaven because she was an angel."