When Bonnie Liltz took her daughter’s life by pouring a fatal dose of medication into her feeding tube, it was an extreme and horrifying response to a common dilemma among parents of the severely disabled: What will happen to my child when I die?
Whether it was also an act that merits a prison sentence — as a judge is due to rule Wednesday — might be a more complicated calculation.
Several legal experts said that while they don’t condone what Liltz did, if there was ever a murder case that warranted probation, this appears to be one. Most cited Liltz’s own severe health problems and failed attempt to take her own life after she killed her 28-year-old daughter Courtney in their Schaumburg home in May 2015.
“This is a severe crime. Legally, it’s not a gray area. Certainly, this is murder. But what would be accomplished by (incarcerating) someone who would never commit a crime again? There’s not any benefit,” said Jonathan Masur, a University of Chicago law professor.
Even a prominent activist in the Chicago-area’s right-to-life movement said Liltz’s failed suicide attempt “leads to more sympathy.”
Liltz, 56, was initially charged with first-degree murder in the death of the daughter she adopted when the girl was 5. Liltz was often joined in court by a group of supporters, including her parents and sister. They described her as totally devoted to taking care of Courtney, who had cerebral palsy, could not talk or dress herself and used a wheelchair. But as Bonnie’s own health seemed to worsen and she feared she was near death, she agonized over the prospect of her daughter ending up in an institution.
Last week, Liltz pleaded guilty in Cook County court to a lesser charge, involuntary manslaughter, and prosecutors have recommended that she receive four years of probation, plus mental health treatment, though she could receive up to 14 years in prison.
Involuntary manslaughter under Illinois law is defined as an unintentional death, while the basic facts in the Liltz case, which both prosecutors and her attorney agree on, point to premeditation.
But Jeffrey Urdangen, director of the Center for Criminal Defense at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law, called the plea deal a “wise decision,” noting prosecutors and judges can exercise some discretion in unusual circumstances.
Allowing Liltz to plead guilty to manslaughter was probably “not so much (about) sympathy, but the prosecutor decided there was sufficient mitigating evidence,” Urdangen said, adding that it might have been tough to convince a jury to deliver a first-degree murder verdict, had the case gone to trial.
“This is an exceptional case,” Urdangen added, saying a jury might have trouble “sending a woman who’s got a critical illness to prison for an act for what some could interpret as mercy. … There are so many facts that lessen her culpability.”
Eric Scheidler, executive director of Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, called Liltz’s actions “misguided and desperate.”
But Scheidler, whose group focuses primarily on stopping abortion, too said that Liltz’s attempt to take her own life “leads to more sympathy, because that shows it wasn’t a selfish act. She wasn’t going to be free of the care of this child.”
Still, he said he’s concerned that a lighter sentence “would open the door for other, less sympathetic cases. Are we sending a signal that we euthanize children with impunity?”
Liltz is not the first case of its kind.
In 2014, Elmhurst resident Frank Stack, 82, fatally shot his two developmentally disabled adult children and terminally ill wife, calling a friend to reveal his plan minutes before also taking his own life. Supporters similarly described them as devoted parents who spent decades caring for their children.
What’s different in this case is that Liltz — despite leaving a suicide note and taking what authorities said was her own overdose of medication, swallowed with a glass of wine — survived to be prosecuted.
Chicago attorney Joseph Monahan has spent 30 years helping families arrange for the care of their disabled children after they die, and said the issue can be the source of extreme fear and anxiety for parents.
“Do they depend upon a sibling, a not-for-profit agency that’s always in (financial) jeopardy, some unknown future? It’s a very difficult thing for parents,” Monahan said.
Liltz’s daughter, for example, had stayed in a residential center in 2012 when Liltz was hospitalized following her second cancer diagnosis. In court last week, Liltz said she her daughter received poor care there and she was haunted by the prospects of Courtney returning to such a place.
“I prayed to God, ‘What’s going to happen to Courtney?’ I was scared and overwhelmed. I couldn’t bear the thought of her in an institution for the rest of her life,” Liltz said.
For families of the disabled who are reliant on public programs and the work of not-for-profit groups that depend on state funding, Illinois’ budget crisis has further strained the already limited options.
Such organizations, are “out raising money through bake sales and dinners to try to get appropriate care for individuals because of the state of our budget,” said Monahan, who also represents a number of nonprofits who assist the disabled. “Should we as a society, resort to Tootsie Roll sales to fund services? I don’t think so.”
The number of people living in state institutions for the disabled has declined steadily since the 1960s, and under the court 2011 court order, Illinois has made progress in moving thousands from larger institutional care facility to group homes. Yet there are still about 7,000 people on a waiting list for state residential services, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.
Glenn Fujiura, a professor in the Department of Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago, estimates roughly 80 percent of adults with significant developmental disabilities live in a family setting, many with aging parents. While private and state-operated organizations provide services for disabled adults ranging from long-term residential placement to a few hours respite supervision for parents, extensive wait times are not unusual.
There are a wide range of government-funded services available to the severely disabled during childhood, but once people age out of those services in early adulthood, “it’s like they vanish,” Fujiura said. “Nothing is mandated for these individuals.”
Fujiura called cases like Liltz’s an example of a “larger broken system.”
“I cast blame on culture and a society that hasn’t found a way to help its most vulnerable,” he said. “When tragedies like this emerge, the desperation of the family speaks to the failure of the system.”
Rita Winkeler, of downstate Bartelso, says she understands the fears and frustrations involved in caring for someone with developmental disabilities. Her son has cerebral palsy and cognitive impairments, and she has another close relative with a mental disability.
“Unless you walk in a mom’s shoes, you don’t know what it’s like to care for a developmentally disabled child. It’s extremely difficult. Does that excuse (Liltz)? Absolutely not. Did she murder to get rid of her daughter? No,” Winkeler said. “I wish she had reached out to someone to say ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ We all come to a point when we just can’t do it anymore.”
Winkeler said she eventually quit her job to care for son, which became increasingly challenging as he grew to be 6-foot-4. Eventually, it came to be too much, and years ago her son moved to a state-run care facility made up of seven group cottages.
Placing her son, now 33, in someone else’s care “was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life,” said Winkeler. “But, honestly, it was probably the best thing. He’s so happy there.
“Sometimes,” she added, “we have to think what’s best for them, because we won’t be here forever, so we have to take that leap of faith.”