A Florida Jury Finds No Guilt in Physician Peter Rosier's Fatal Devotion to His Dying Wife

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

As with everything she did, Patricia Rosier, 43, planned her suicide carefully. A bright, stylish, spirited woman with a devoted husband and two teenage children, she had fought for nine months while lung cancer spread through her body. The end, advised her oncologist, was weeks away.

Determined to meet death gracefully, she began her final evening, Jan. 14, 1986, with a festive champagne-and-lobster dinner at home in Fort Myers, Fla. After dinner, she tucked the children into bed, gave each a sleeping pill to ensure that they had a peaceful night and said, "I wish that all of your dreams come true." She and her husband, Peter, then 44, walked together to the master bedroom where they made love for the last time. Afterward, she came out to hug relatives who had been watching TV in the den. She returned to the bedroom, put on a long white nightgown and climbed into bed.

At her bedside were Peter and her half-brothers, Russell and Farrell Delman. She swallowed 20 Seconals, a sedative obtained for her by Peter, a successful pathologist. Then she closed her eyes, expecting to slip elegantly away.

Had her death been as efficiently planned as the rest of the evening, one of the most unusual murder trials in Florida history would almost certainly never have taken place. But Patricia Rosier's life did not end that night. She lingered on until noon of Jan. 15, gasping weakly. Death came only after her frantic husband administered morphine and her father, Vincent Delman, slipped into the room hours later and held his hands over her nose and mouth. Anguished over his daughter's suffering, he smothered her for 10 minutes.

Since the death was not considered suspicious, the matter might have ended there but for Peter's peculiar loquacity. Ten months later he told a TV reporter, in an interview, of the part he had played in his wife's death. He said nothing of Vincent's role, apparently unaware of it. Subsequently he was charged with first-degree murder by State Attorney Joseph D'Alessandro. Vincent, Russell and Farrell Delman, fearful that they might also be prosecuted, sought and were granted immunity in exchange for their testimony. Earlier this month, a Pinellas County jury found Peter not guilty after learning that Vincent—by this time beyond the reach of the law—was the one who had actually ended Patty's life.

After the verdict, a sobbing, shaken Rosier bear-hugged his attorney, Stanley Rosenblatt, who had contended all along that the case was "a private family tragedy" and should never have been prosecuted. Said Rosier: "If anything good has come out of this, it's perhaps that people will start to look at the rights of the terminally ill because of the terrible tragedy that befell Patricia Rosier and subsequently the rest of my family."

By all appearances, Peter Rosier was a driven man who would have done anything for the woman he loved. He and Patty had been virtually inseparable since they met as teenagers at a dance in Lawrence, N.Y. Patty's parents had divorced when she was young, and her mother had married Delman, a dentist, who adopted her. Peter's father was a doctor and his mother a prominent interior designer. Peter and Patty were married on March 31, 1963, while he was starting medical school. During Peter's trial, Patty's half-brother Farrell would tell the court, "It's as though they were one person. I don't think anyone in this room has this kind of love."

But not even Farrell was always so taken by the Rosiers' closeness; as with other members of Patty's family, he sometimes felt that she was so devoted to her husband that she seemed to be losing her own identity. "Peter tended to be very self-centered, and Patty was constantly taking care of him," Farrell said. The alienation grew, and the final break between Patty and her family took place after she and Peter joined Vincent at a family dinner in Brooklyn. During the meal, Peter snapped his fingers, and Patty obediently jumped up to light his cigar. Vincent was so upset at this display and other indications of Peter's control over his daughter that he refused to see them again until Patty's 40th-birthday party, more than 10 years later.

But Patty and Peter seemed to need no one but themselves. By 1973, when Peter moved the family from Birmingham, where he had worked at the University of Alabama, to Fort Myers, where he eventually became chief of pathology at Lee Memorial Hospital, the two appeared to have everything. With Peter earning as much as $800,000 a year, the two of them spent a small fortune. They acquired his-and-her Rolls-Royces. They hired a professional photographer to take seminude photos of Patty, which they hung in their $350,000 house. They took a trip to South America with the children and hunted butterflies.

Still, their lives were not without problems. Patty was a heavy smoker who, according to Farrell, sometimes relied on diet pills to keep her weight down. Peter seemed to have difficulty making and keeping friends. And it was Patty who had to turn the other cheek the time she learned that her husband was having an affair.

Family and friends say that Patty had grown into a strong, independent, open-minded woman when she learned that she had cancer. Peter proved less resilient, and few of their acquaintances approved of the way he dealt with her illness and its aftermath. When the disease was diagnosed, he quit as chief of pathology and vowed to spend all his time caring for his wife. As her condition grew more grave, he declared that he couldn't live without her. In the fall of 1985, when she said she planned to kill herself, he told her he would commit suicide with her.

According to Russell Delman, who teaches "body awareness" in California's enlightened Marin County, it was only a few days before Patty's death that Peter decided to delay his own suicide. He said that his children, Lizzie, now 22, and Jacob, now 19, had begged him to stay on, and he had agreed. He planned to reevaluate the decision on March 31, his wedding anniversary. Patty, ever supportive and by now suffering from cancer that had spread to her brain, stomach and adrenal glands, told him she was content to die alone. Before the final evening, she made arrangements to be cremated and talked with Peter about women who might take her place.

For those who helped her die, Patricia Rosier's wrenching final hours were only the beginning of the nightmare. After her death, when Peter described his role in her suicide to a television reporter who had documented his wife's struggle with cancer in a series of news segments, State Attorney D'Alessandro moved in. He charged Peter with murder, even though Vincent had already confessed to the prosecutor under immunity that he was the one who had ended her life. D'Alessandro's decision to go ahead with the trial brought him considerable criticism. "Dr. Rosier made a horrible error in judgment in going on television," said defense lawyer Rosenblatt, "but Joe D'Alessandro made a greater error."

During his trial, Rosier was staunchly supported by some proponents of the "death-with-dignity" principle. Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, an Oregon-based organization that supports the rights of the dying to end their own lives, was at the Pinellas County Courthouse almost every day of the monthlong trial. He described Patty's death as "assisted suicide"—an act that the 28,000-member Hemlock Society hopes will become legal. Humphry is a former reporter who supplied a lethal dose of sleeping pills to his own terminally ill wife in 1975 while living in Great Britain. (He was not prosecuted for his part in her death.) He applauded the Rosier jury for sending out a "message that it's not appropriate to charge these cases."

Opposing the verdict was Rita Marker, director of the International Anti-Euthanasia Task Force at the University of Steubenville, Ohio, who followed the trial closely and declared the jury's decision "sad and ominous." Marker added, "What it says is that in Florida, killing one's sick spouse is acceptable. It doesn't set a legal precedent, but it establishes an attitude."

Although it was Vincent Delman's testimony that contributed to Peter Rosier's acquittal, he has not forgiven Rosier for the agony of his daughter's final hours. How, Delman wonders, could a doctor miscalculate the amount of Seconal necessary to kill a terminally ill patient? Others asked a different trenchant question: Why had Peter given the pills to Patty with water rather than with alcohol, which would have enhanced the sedative effect of the pills?

Though Rosier himself has offered no explanation, there is speculation that perhaps, when the fatal moment came, he was simply unable to let his wife go. In court, Rosenblatt argued, "He wanted to comply with her wishes, but he didn't want her to die. He wanted her to go to sleep. He knows how to end a life in a minute.... but he couldn't do it."

In fact, once Patty was dead, Peter fell into a severe depression. He was barely coherent when relatives came by after her cremation to comfort him. And though he eventually stopped talking of suicide, he began behaving strangely. At one point he told his secretary to call Farrell and Vincent to ask that they return small gifts Patty had given them. When Vincent refused, according to Farrell, Peter hired a lawyer and threatened to sue. Obsessed with Patty's memory, Peter insisted that a vase containing a fresh rose be kept at her place at the dinner table. He took up cigarette smoking, and he saw a psychiatrist regularly, sometimes twice a day.

By November 1986, Peter had become single-mindedly intent upon publishing his memoirs of life with Patty. He sent sample chapters of a 600-page manuscript to publishers and received no positive response, so he hired a screenwriter for $20,000 and commissioned a screenplay. There was little interest in that, either, and in his frustration, he contacted a Fort Myers TV reporter, Leisa Zigman.

Rosier has since admitted that his public confession was a self-destructive act. "I was suicidal," he says. "Part of it was a need to talk to anyone who'd listen." Humphry believes that as dramatic as it was, Peter's behavior was not atypical of those who assist in the deaths of loved ones. "There's a compulsion to speak out afterward," he says. "You want to talk about it."

Peter says he bears no animosity toward D'Alessandro nor toward the Delmans for agreeing to testify for the prosecution in order to guarantee their own freedom. He does, however, resent Vincent's part in his wife's death. "I wish," he says, "that Patricia Rosier, who I loved with every fiber of my being, was allowed to sleep until she died. And he didn't let her." Both tearful and jubilant after the verdict, he announced that his ordeal had served an ironic purpose: The trial itself had become the tribute to Patty he had tried for so long to provide.

—Michelle Green, and Meg Grant in Pinellas County

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