PHOENIX – An 86-year-old man who carried out a mercy killing by shooting his ailing wife and high school sweetheart in the head was sentenced Friday to probation after an emotional hearing where family members tearfully spoke on his behalf.
George Sanders could have faced more than 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter. The judge, who complimented the prosecutor for being “courageous” in recommending probation, allowed Sanders to walk out of the courtroom.
Judge John Ditsworth said his sentence of two years’ probation was “individualized and tempers justice with mercy.”
“It is very clear that he will never forget that his actions ended the life of his wife,” Ditsworth said as Sanders stood on a podium, his hands clasped and shaking.
“In this set of facts, there was a perfect storm of individual circumstances which placed Mr. Sanders in a position where he had to make a decision,” Ditsworth said. “This set of facts hits close to home for all of us.”
Sanders, wearing khakis and a white sport coat, spoke for only a minute about his love for his 81-year-old wife, Virginia Sanders, who he calls Ginger.
“Your honor, I met Ginger when she was 15 years old and I’ve loved her since she was 15 years old. I loved her when she was 81 years old,” he said, trembling.
“It was a blessing, and I was happy to take care of her,” Sanders continued. “I am sorry for all the grief and pain and sorrow I’ve caused people.”
Sanders was arrested Nov. 9 after he says his wife begged him to shoot her at their home in the retirement community of Sun City outside Phoenix. He was initially charged with first-degree murder before reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors.
“The family very much loved their mother,” prosecutor Blaine Gadow told the judge Friday as he recommended a sentence of probation, noting the “very unique, difficult circumstances of this case.”
“I don’t know where our society is going to go with cases like this, judge,” Gadow said. “At this point in time, what Mr. Sanders did was a crime.”
However, he added, “No one in the courtroom has forgotten the victim in this case.”
Steve Sanders, the defendant’s son, then spoke on behalf of his father, telling the judge the family never wanted him to be prosecuted.
“I want the court to know that I loved my mother dearly,” he said. “But I would also like the court to know that I equally love my father.”
Breaking down at time in tears, Steve Sanders explained how his father had been Virginia Sanders’ sole caregiver as her health deteriorated.
“I fully believe that the doctor’s visits, the appointments, the medical phone calls and the awaiting hospital bed led to the decision that my parents made together,” he said. “I do not fault my father.
“A lot of people have hero figures in their life, LeBron James ... some world class figures ... but I have to tell you my lifelong hero is my dad,” Steve Sanders told the judge, sobbing. He said his parents had been together for 62 years, “the love of his life, my mother.”
Sanders grandson, Grant Sanders, then described what he called “a beautiful love story.”
“My grandfather lived to love my grandmother, to serve and to make her feel as happy as he could every moment of their life,” Grant Sanders said. “I truly believe that the pain had become too much for my grandmother to bear.”
Sanders said his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969, and the couple moved from Washington state to Arizona in the 1970s for the warm, dry climate. She had been in a wheelchair since 1971.
Eventually, his own health deteriorated, and he said it became more difficult to care for his wife.
He said she was diagnosed with gangrene on her foot just a few days before the shooting and was set to be admitted to a hospital, then a nursing home.
“It was just the last straw,” Sanders told a detective during his interrogation in November. “She didn’t want to go to that hospital ... start cutting her toes off.”
He said his wife begged him to kill her.
“I said, ‘I can’t do it honey,’” he told the detective. “She says, ‘Yes you can.’”
Sanders then got his revolver and wrapped a towel around it so the bullet wouldn’t go into the kitchen.
“She says, ‘Is this going to hurt?’ and I said, ‘You won’t feel a thing,’” he said.
“She was saying, ‘Do it. Do it. Do it.’ And I just let it go,” Sanders added.
As he sentenced Sanders on Friday, Ditsworth recalled his drive home from court the day he accepted Sanders’ plea. He said he tuned his radio to a talk show, “and I heard the name George Sanders and my curiosity piqued.”
He said he listened for the next hour as about 25 callers expressed their opinions.
Many asked themselves, “What if this had happened to me? ... What if this were me, my brother, my wife?” Ditsworth said. “And it was overwhelming that the general public did not support Mr. Sanders’ actions, but they understood them.”