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Murder in Manassas, Virginia? the Starving of Hugh Finn

by Mary Ann Kreitzer

Descriptive Title

Murder In Manassas, VA? the Starving of Hugh Finn

Description

A summary of events surrounding the landmark case of Hugh Finn, the Louisville news anchor who was starved to death by his wife in October 1998.

Larger Work

The Truth

Publisher & Date

Les Femmes: The Women of Truth, Fall 1998

Vision Book Cover Prints

Murder In Manassas, Va? The Starving of Hugh Finn
By Mary Ann Kreitzer

Hugh Finn, the 44-year-old news anchor from Louisville, Kentucky, who made national news when his wife Michele successfully sued to remove his feeding tube over the objections of his parents and other family members, died of dehydration and starvation on October 9th at Annaburg Manor in Manassas, VA. Did this simply allow the "natural" process of death for a terminal patient as the Supreme Court of Virginia claimed? Or was Hugh Finn legally murdered by order of his wife, with the cooperation of Annaburg Administrator David Tucker, Medical Director Robin Merlino, Judge Frank Hoss of Prince William Circuit Court, and the VA Supreme Court?

March 9, 1995: The Tragedy Begins

On an icy winter morning as he drove his daughters to the bus stop Hugh's truck collided head-on with another vehicle. The girls weren't badly hurt, but a ruptured aorta deprived Hugh of oxygen leaving him seriously brain-damaged. He spent most of the next year at Moss Rehabilitation Hospital in Philadelphia. Although Hugh could take food and water by mouth, a feeding tube guaranteed sufficient nourishment. Upon Hugh's release in February '96, Moss documented that he had developed communication techniques and was a "good" candidate for long-term rehabilitation. He was transferred to Annaburg Manor in Manassas, VA near his parents. Michele remained in Louisville with their two daughters, visiting occasionally. She was named her husband's legal guardian.

The Time at Annaburg

Hugh's dad, Tom Finn, was a daily visitor at Annaburg. He went in the morning to shave him, took him for walks in his wheelchair or to Mass at nearby All Saints Catholic Church, and often visited at night to prepare him for bed. "He was never clean," Finn said. Michele asked once why he was wasting his time. "I'm 72," he replied, "I can do what I want." The activities director at Annaburg suggested he should "get a life." "Hugh is my life," he answered.

Another regular visitor was Hugh's best friend from college, Steve Martino. Steve had introduced Michele and Hugh, was best man at their wedding, and was godfather to their daughter, Keely. Steve came from Annapolis to see Hugh at least once a month. "We had a good time," he told me. Hugh's dad said every spring Steve would pick Hugh up in his convertible, strap the wheelchair to the bike rack, and take him into Washington to see the cherry blossoms. "He loves him dearly and never gave up on him," Tom Finn told reporters. According to Steve, Hugh could speak, laugh, sing, and answer questions using eye signals. "I honestly believe he is very frustrated with his lack of ability to communicate," Steve testified at the July court hearing before Judge Hoss. "Rather than groan or mutter, he would rather lie there quietly and not say anything." Hugh, Steve testified, was conscious and aware.

June, 1998: Michele's Decision

Michele called for a meeting in June at the nursing home where the Medical Director, Dr. Robin Merlino, announced they were going to "terminate" Hugh's feeding the next day. The announcement, a bombshell, sparked immediate objections from the family. Michele was determined. According to Tom Finn, a few days later she "chewed my head off and wanted to know why I wouldn't do what she wanted." Doctors had told her Hugh was in persistent vegetative state (PVS) and would never recover. He wouldn't want to live like that, Michele insisted. Finn was so angry over the exchange he told Hugh Michele was going to kill him, an act he immediately regretted. "[Hugh's] face turned red. He pinched his lips in. His hands were on his chest grabbing [at his clothing]. He shivered and shivered for 45 minutes. I had begun to believe what the doctors said [about PVS], but then I knew. 'You do understand!'"

Hugh's parents and siblings weren't the only ones who disagreed. Michele's own mother and sister opposed her. Mary Margaret Keely, Michele's mom, didn't believe the PVS diagnosis which describes a patient as unaware of his surroundings and unresponsive. At Christmas Hugh had thanked her for a gift and asked for Elaine, Michele's sister. I met Mrs. Keely at All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas. When she heard what Michele was going to do, she said, she immediately went to see her. "I told Michele I love her unconditionally, but I couldn't support her in what she was doing."

As things heated up John Finn, Hugh's brother, representing the family challenged Michele for guardianship. At the July hearing before Judge Hoss in Prince William Circuit Court he lost. Hoss gave Michele permission to remove the tube after 30 days and assessed John Finn $13,300 of her legal fees plus other expenses. The Finns planned to appeal.

Delegate Bob Marshall enters the fray

In September, with the family in total turmoil, Elaine Glazier, Michele's sister, horrified by the decision to starve her brother-in-law, called VA State Delegate Bob Marshall for help. She said Hugh was able to speak until March when a medication was discontinued. Marshall documented other troubling aspects of the case. A shunt put in to drain fluid from the brain hadn't been checked for over a year. If blocked it could affect Hugh's ability to speak. Hugh showed many behaviors inconsistent with PVS: tracking people with his eyes, following directions, nodding yes and no to questions, kissing, singing, and using eye signals. On Father's Day of 1997 he lifted his leg at daughter Keely's request. During the summer of 1998 he twice told nurse's aide Aubrey Elliott, "You can go now!" Because Hugh sometimes didn't swallow, a sign was posted over the bed reading "nothing by mouth." When a layman from All Saints who brought Holy Communion told Hugh he couldn't give it to him, Hugh cried. Marshall questioned the PVS diagnosis and called for a state investigation. Euthanasia is illegal in Virginia, but the Health Care Decisions Act permits dehydration and starvation of PVS patients who show "loss of consciousness, with no behavioral evidence of self awareness of surroundings in a learned manner." More and more states around the country are passing this type of legislation which many believe is 1990's doublespeak for "useless eater," an excuse to eliminate the helpless. Doubt about the PVS diagnosis was heightened when state nurse, Marie Saul, visited Hugh on Sept. 18th and reported he said "Hi" to her and smoothed his hair. "I was surprised at how normal he looked...If it had not been for his lack of responses...I would not have thought that he would be diagnosed as chronic vegetative." Despite her report, Judge Hoss denied a new hearing to reevaluate Hugh's condition. He did not order a PET scan test which can more accurately determine PVS, even though research shows patients are routinely misdiagnosed. [43% according to the British Medical Journal of July and October 1996.] Meanwhile, the media described Hugh as "comatose" and "vegetative" and implied he was terminal and being kept alive by artificial means. In a letter to the Washington Post after Hugh's death, his brother, Ed Finn, put that lie to rest. "Up until shortly before he died, my brother was unconscious only during regular sleep cycles. He was conscious at other times."

The Media Battle and Dehumanization of Hugh

Disagreement within the Finn family turned what could have been a quiet killing into a media event. Michele and her lawyer, Greg Murphy, held news conferences and appeared on TV talk shows defending her choice. "He wouldn't have wanted me to suffer," she said. Michele denied Hugh could communicate. She refused, however, to allow a Washington Post reporter into his room and banned video cameras. Why? Was she afraid the world would see that he was awake and aware? A few days before the appeal deadline, Michele called another family meeting and asked the Finns to withdraw the suit. They capitulated, the beginning of the end for Hugh. John Finn, spoke for the family saying, "We have all decided that Hugh would not wish to remain in the physical condition he was in and have agreed to have artificial hydration and nutrition withdrawn." Despite his words, the family did not agree with the decision. They were apparently just tired of fighting. "We wanted the turmoil to calm down," John told reporters, "We wanted family peace." Hugh's mom, Joan Finn, said later they felt they had no other options.

Meanwhile, Michele set up an "approved list" of visitors excluding her own mother and sister, Hugh's good friend, Steve Martino, as well as Hugh's priests from All Saints Catholic Church. Steve visited on October 3rd anyway and asked Hugh if he wanted to eat. Hugh blinked yes. The duty nurse and David Tucker ordered Steve to leave. He refused. "I thought my being left off the list was an oversight. If Michele really wanted what was best for Hugh she would have let me stay." Hugh's mother and brother who were in the room at the time agreed. But the police were called, Steve was handcuffed, led away, charged with trespassing, and released on $750 bond. His one regret, Steve said, was that they didn't handcuff him in the room. "Hugh would have been amused by it." On Friday evening, October 2nd, Michele berated a priest from All Saints who came to see Hugh and refused to allow him in the room. She was absent two days later when another priest, formerly from the parish, visited and administered last rites. The Battle between good and evil Seton School, a few blocks from Annaburg, had hung a large banner on the side of the building saying "FEED FINN." Student religion classes and the Legion of Mary were regular visitors at the nursing home, my daughter among them. I went to see David Tucker, the administrator, on September 30th and begged him not to cooperate with evil by removing the feeding tube the next day. It implicated his entire staff. To starve and dehydrate Hugh, I said, was to tell every resident at Annaburg, "If your family wants you dead, we'll kill you too." Tucker said they had no choice but to obey the law. Questioning that statement, I called the Attorney General's office. Annaburg was not, in fact, required to carry out the killing. Bob Marshall had sent Tucker an article about a New Jersey nursing home's refusal to starve patients. But Tucker was committed. I learned later Hugh was at least the fourth patient starved to death at Annaburg Manor.

On October 1st Michele had the feeding tube removed and Hugh's personal agony began. News articles appeared saying Hugh's death would be painless. Michele was quoted in a Kentucky newspaper interview saying, "All medical evidence points to the fact that the withdrawal of hydration and feeding is not starvation, and it is not painful, and that the person slowly goes into a sleep-like state and the death is actually very peaceful." It reminded me of pro-abortionists who claim unborn babies feel no pain during abortion.

Bill and Nancy Supples, parents from Seton School, organized dinnertime prayer vigils outside Annaburg Manor to unite the community more closely with Hugh who was being denied his meals. During the following days, hundreds participated. I picketed and prayed alone at odd hours carrying a sign that read "'Useless Eater' Hugh Finn being starved to death here." On one occasion two women exiting the nursing home yelled, "It's not your choice!" As pro- lifers had predicted in 1973, the choice to kill the unborn had become the choice to kill the helpless. As the state continued to fight for Hugh's life, Michele and her lawyer escalated the attack against Delegate Bob Marshall and Governor Jim Gilmore. Gilmore responded in a news conference of his own on October 2nd. "Assuming... that Hugh Finn is in a persistent vegetative state, he is nevertheless not dying. On the contrary, the manifest purpose and effect of denying him food and water is to initiate a dying process not previously present...I believe my job as governor, my role, is to protect those people who are most frail in society and cannot necessarily protect themselves." The state rushed to get a court hearing to reinsert the feeding tube. The Supreme Court of Virginia refused to hear the case. Since Annaburg Manor is licensed by the state, Marshall sought an investigation by the Medicaid oversight committee at Prince William Hospital and petitioned for a review in Federal Court. Both attempts failed. Hugh was a dead man.

The Ordeal

It took Hugh nine days to die of dehydration. I met Joan Finn, his mother, outside the nursing home on October 7th. Obviously distraught she said, "Don't let anyone ever tell you this isn't a horrible way to die. No law should allow this!" A few days earlier she told a reporter "I just don't think that [Hugh] should be put to death. Tom and I are willing to take care of him." Except when sleeping, Hugh remained conscious with eyes open for eight days as the press reported his mouth drying out and his deteriorating condition. While the media quoted doctors' assurances of a comfortable death, the nursing home administered morphine and Hugh's parents said he seemed to be in pain and was "moaning and groaning something awful." On October 8th Hugh slipped into a coma and died the next morning. Michele had instructed the nursing home not to notify the Finns when Hugh died, so they didn't even receive the courtesy of a phone call.

The Betrayal of Two Bishops

Of all those who should have defended Hugh's right to life, paramount among them was his bishop, Thomas Kelly of Louisville. In a September 23rd telephone interview with Jerry Filteau of Catholic News Service, Kelly said he wrote Michele a personal letter because some of the family, particularly Hugh's parents, were opposing her. He told her, "The responsibility was hers...and we, the Catholic family here in Louisville, would support her decision." What she was about do, he wrote, "is within the Church's realm of acceptable moral decisions," an opinion in conflict with the U.S. bishops' 1992 document, Nutrition and Hydration, which condemns the "omission of nutrition and hydration intended to cause a patient's death." Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, VA in an interview with Liz Szabo of the Virginia Pilot showed his ignorance of the case when he described Hugh as in a "coma" for three years. He nevertheless justified Hugh's starvation calling the feeding tube "extraordinary means" not required by Catholic moral theology. "My own conviction, " he said "is that if a person is in a persistent vegetative state, you certainly can withdraw treatment and this is not an act of euthanasia." With the bishop's chair empty in the Arlington diocese where Hugh lived, there was no local cleric of equal rank to challenge the two bishops. In an October 2nd statement obviously timed to the Finn case which was receiving world-wide coverage, Pope John Paul II entered the fray to defend the helpless. Addressing a group of U.S. bishops the Pope said, "A great teaching effort is needed to clarify the substantive moral difference between discontinuing medical procedures that may be burdensome, dangerous or disproportionate to the expected outcome - what the Catechism of the Catholic Church calls 'the refusal of "overzealous" treatment' - and taking away the ordinary means of preserving life, such as feeding, hydration and normal medical care." The Pope praised the bishops' 1992 document and stated the "presumption should be in favor of providing medically assisted nutrition and hydration to all patients who need them." Would Michele listen to the pope? She had an extraordinary opportunity to do so. A senior physician at Georgetown Medical Center arranged for Hugh's care at a local hospice run by a well-known order of sisters. They would reinsert the feeding tube and care for Hugh with dignity and respect as long as he lived at no cost to the family. A letter making the offer was hand-delivered to the Finn family at their auto body shop in Woodbridge. When they tried to give it to Michele she refused to take it. God opened every door possible to save Hugh, but, like mothers determined to kill their unborn children, Michele's choice allowed for only one outcome - a dead husband.

The betrayal by the shepherds of the entire Finn family, especially Hugh's young daughters, who can't help but be damaged by the knowledge that mummy killed daddy, continued after his death. At Hugh's funeral in Louisville October 12th, which one witness described as a tribute to Michele, Fr. Martin Linebach told her, "I'm proud of you, I admire you, I respect you." Starving a helpless man to death had become reason for adulation! The family members who fought to save Hugh, who loved him "for better or worse, in sickness and in health," received no such praise. Would Hugh's death restore peace? The peace desired by the family when they withdrew the legal challenge was not to be. Michele continued to oppose them even after Hugh's death. At the funeral home in Kentucky when they asked to view the body, she initially refused. Later, the funeral director gave them an hour with their son and brother, another source of pain. "Hugh always wore a suit. He liked to look nice," Tom Finn said. In the casket he was dressed in an old sweater and a pair of sweat pants. Ed Finn, Hugh's younger brother, asked to give a eulogy to Hugh at the funeral. Michele refused.

He delivered it instead at a memorial service at All Saints on October 23rd. Ed described Hugh as bright and energetic, always looking for a caper. Even as a youngster Hugh was interested in everything. When he was only eight, he told six-year-old Ed who Nikita Khrushchev was. Ed reminisced about the time they were setting up for a concert and moving a piano. With their dad in the truck's cab driving, Ed and Hugh rode in back supporting the piano. Suddenly Hugh, an accomplished pianist, began playing the William Tell Overture. Hugh helped all his brothers and sisters believe in themselves, Ed said. He was brave, kind, and lived life to the full! It was fitting, Ed thought, that Hugh's last reported word was "Hi!" He painted a tender portrait of a beloved big brother.

The Betrayal of the Courts

I was once involved in the legal commitment of an individual who was mentally ill. The judge treated those seeking commitment with great scepticism, making every effort to defend the person's freedom. Rightly so! Judge Frank Hoss had an obligation to vigorously defend Hugh's right to life. His arrogant dismissal of Hugh, however, was evident at the July 29th hearing when he said, "It's a doctor saying that, in fact, their diagnosis is that this person, Mr. Finn is, has or suffers from a persistent vegetative state. That's one side of it.... But all I have on the other side is what [the family] sees, and what they perceive, and what they want to see and what they want to perceive."

Judge Hoss also had the witness of third parties like Steve Martino and Hugh's nurse's aide. He chose to ignore them. He could have ordered the more accurate PET scan. Instead, he assessed the Finns thousands for Michele's legal fees, surely designed to have a chilling effect on further challenges. When the Finn's lawyer tried to explore the issue of whether Michele would benefit financially from Hugh's death, Hoss refused to allow such testimony. Like the Roe v. Wade court in 1973, he had already made up his mind. After Hugh's death coroner, Dr. Jared Florence, tried to examine the body and review the medical records since no death certificate had been issued and the body was being sent out of state. Again, it was Hoss who intervened and blocked the effort, the first time in 25 years such a thing had happened to the coroner.

Is History Repeating Itself?

In 1920 a German judge, Karl Binding, and a psychiatrist, Alfred Hoche, wrote a book called The Release of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value. It justified euthanasia of "absolutely worthless human beings," those "mentally completely dead" with lives not worth living. That philosophy became the basis of the German Euthanasia program proposed by the Nazi Ministry of Justice on October 7, 1933 and implemented six years later. The program was planned and carried out by psychiatrists and medical doctors who systematically murdered over a million people: the mentally ill, World War I amputees, emotionally disturbed children, the elderly and others considered unfit to live. German citizens were killed by deliberate starvation, lethal injection, etc. The first gas chambers were erected on the wards of mental hospitals like Sonnenstein near Dresden. Only later were they used to solve "the Jewish problem." No doctor was forced to participate in the euthanasia program. Those who refused were not punished. Unfortunately, there was no shortage of willing participants. After the war Dr. Karl Brandt, director of the euthanasia program, was tried at Nuremberg by a U.S. tribunal, convicted, and executed. Can anyone imagine judges reaching such a decision today in Dr. Jack Kevorkian's U.S.? Just as U.S. doctors can kill unborn babies only because of U.S. judges, the German doctors were aided and abetted by German judges. In the famous film, Judgment at Nuremberg, a Nazi judge sentenced to life in prison for his role in the holocaust says to the American judge heading the tribunal, "All those millions of people, you must believe me, I never knew it would come to that." The American responds, "It came to that the first time you sentenced to death a man you knew to be innocent."

Who will be next?

It's been said that the measure of a society is how it treats its oldest and youngest members. Like the unborn infant in the womb, Hugh Finn depended completely on the love and compassion of others. Despite his diminished "quality of life" he was in good health. He was dying only in the sense each of us on life's journey is dying. Hugh wasn't hooked up to any machines. The feeding tube wasn't "burdensome" or "dangerous." Like penicillin, which has become an ordinary means to fight infection, feeding tubes are now ordinary means to provide hydration and nutrition, often put in for the convenience of care-givers rather than out of necessity.

But we live in what Pope John Paul II has called the "culture of death." If unborn babies with vast potential can be murdered by the millions, why not "useless eaters" with no potential at all. Steven Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute in Front Royal, VA, says it's here. Using China as an example he described the demographic problem of too many elderly supported by too few workers. China's one-child policy has led to a situation where the elderly are denied treatment. Done quietly now, he expects euthanasia to become state policy soon. The U.S., he said, is no different. "We mask our evil with poly-syllabic medical terms, but the reality of what's happening here is very similar to what's happening in China. I make no claims of [U.S.] moral superiority when it comes to the life issues."

No one knows how many patients are silently murdered in America today under laws similar to Virginia's Health Care Decisions Act. As Tom Finn told me shortly after Hugh's death, "It's so easy with that law. If someone wants to get the insurance they can kill you. It scares you!"

WHAT YOU CAN DO

1. Pray for the repose of Hugh's soul, the conversion of Michele, and especially for Hugh's young daughters, Keely and Bridget, and the entire Finn family.

2. Write to the Courts of Justice Committee of the State Senate and protest the actions of Judge Frank Hoss. The following senators are on the committee: Joe Gartlan (Chairman), Richard Saslaw, Henry March, Jackson Reasor, Jr., Janet Howell, L. Louise Lucas, John Edwards, W. Roscoe Reynolds, Malfourd Trumbo, Kenneth Stolle, Frederick Quayle, Thomas Norment, Jr., Martin Williams, J. Randy Forbes, and Bill Mims. Mail your correspondence to Virginia Senate, P.O. Box 396, Richmond, Virginia 23218.

3. Contribute to the Hugh Finn Family Legal Defense Fund, WACHOVIA Bank, Lake Ridge Branch, 2201 Old Bridge Rd, Woodbridge, VA 22192. Your donations will help pay the draconian assessment levied by Judge Hoss.

© Published in Les Femmes' newsletter, THE TRUTH, vol. 3 #4 Fall, 1998 Address: Les Femmes: The Women of Truth P.O. Box 1211 Vienna, VA 22183-1211

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