By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York man convicted of murder after saying he simply helped a man commit suicide with a knife will get a new trial, a state appeals court ruled on Thursday.
Kenneth Minor must be retried because the trial judge's jury instructions improperly limited his assisted suicide defense, the state Supreme Court's Appellate Division said.
Minor was convicted in 2011 of second-degree murder and sentenced to 20 years to life in prison in a case that sparked debate about what constitutes assisted suicide.
Both prosecutors and Minor agreed that in 2009 a debt-ridden Long Island resident named Jeffrey Locker hired Minor to help him kill himself and make it look like a robbery so his family could collect the life insurance.
Minor claimed that Locker gave him a knife, which Minor held against the steering wheel while Locker impaled himself on it several times. Prosecutors, however, accused Minor of stabbing Locker with the knife and charged him with murder.
Under New York law, assisted suicide is illegal but can be used as a defense against murder charges.
In instructing the jury, the trial judge said Minor could not assert an assisted suicide defense if he "actively caused (Locker's) death," even with his consent.
That was incorrect because assisted suicide can in fact include some active participation, the appeals court said.
"The error in the court's charge ... essentially gutted his defense," Justice Rosalyn Richter wrote for the unanimous four-judge panel.
Daniel Gotlin, one of Minor's attorneys, said the ruling was "totally justified" in a case that presented unique circumstances.
"I guarantee that nobody saw a situation like this when the statute was written," he said.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Cynthia Osterman)