He Helped a Woman End Her Own Life. Was It Manslaughter, or Mercy?

A king room at the Super 8 motel in Kingston, N.Y., is a forlorn place. Mismatched night stands. An armchair with visible stains. Soggy grass outside the window.

“Resting for the journey ahead,” the do-not-disturb sign says. It shows a lone car on a two-lane road, sandy hills beneath fluffy white clouds in the distance.

Doreen Brodhead checked into just such a room in the fall, No. 102, the last one on the right at the end of a narrow, dimly lit hallway. With her was Stephen P. Miller, a former doctor from Arizona with a prison term in his past. They had gotten to know each other online.

Ms. Brodhead, a 59-year-old Kingston native, had lived with severe pain in her neck and back most of her adult life. She attributed it to her brief career as a dental hygienist. No one — not doctors or surgeons or chiropractors or acupuncturists — could fix it.

Mr. Miller, 85, was familiar with pain. As a toddler, he had been badly burned in a bathtub of scalding water, a relative said. Now, along with other ailments, he had a chronic spinal condition.

The next morning, Ms. Brodhead’s body was found on the bed in Room 102 next to a note. A gas canister was nearby. Mr. Miller was gone.

The authorities said her death was a suicide: asphyxiation by nitrogen gas. An end to four decades of agony, Ms. Brodhead’s mother would say later.

But the Ulster County district attorney accused Mr. Miller of unlawfully helping Ms. Brodhead end her life, charging him with manslaughter in the second degree.

Mr. Miller said he was an angel of mercy. Prosecutors called him an angel of death.

Doreen Brodhead was born on March 17, 1964. She grew up the youngest of three sisters in and around Kingston, a Hudson River city about 100 miles north of Manhattan. Her father was an IBM engineer in the era when the company’s success helped Kingston thrive.

Ms. Brodhead’s childhood included typical pastimes: Brownies, Little League softball, hand bell ringing with a church group. She got her dental hygienist’s license at 22.

Patricia Costa got to know her about 30 years later as a neighbor at Wiltwyck Gardens, a public housing complex for seniors and people with disabilities near Broadway, Kingston’s main drag. About a year after Ms. Costa moved in, she said, Ms. Brodhead began to open up to her. She was kind and unassuming, quick to laugh and “learned” in astrology.

But there was another side to Ms. Brodhead, Ms. Costa said: a “disturbed woman” who complained constantly about her upstairs neighbor, her family and, above all, her poor health.

Ms. Brodhead, in an undated photograph.

Ms. Brodhead never married and did not have a partner. She did not work when Ms. Costa knew her and apparently had not for a long time. She spoke of friends who had fallen away and bad relationships with men who abused her.

She had been in a car crash several years earlier, rear-ending another vehicle at a stoplight. Four people in the other car were hurt, one seriously. Ms. Brodhead got a bad bump on her head and two black eyes.

When officers arrived that night, she denied drinking, but there were bottles of peach schnapps and sangria in the car, an arrest report said; tests found alcohol, marijuana and Xanax in her system. She pleaded guilty to vehicular assault, was sentenced to six months in jail and five years’ probation, and had her driver’s license revoked. She settled two lawsuits filed against her under confidential terms.

Ms. Brodhead’s life had narrowed so much in her last years that she rarely went outside, Ms. Costa said. She moved carefully when she did, so as not to bump into anything, worried that even the slightest contact could be painful or cause bruising.

She found some peace meditating in a church garden across the street from the housing complex, and some calm listening to the music of Enya and Loreena McKennitt.

“She was open to happiness,” Ms. Costa said. “She just didn’t have it.”

By the time Stephen P. Miller entered Room 102 with Ms. Brodhead, he was no longer a licensed doctor and was affiliated with a right-to-die group in Arizona.

Born in Massachusetts, he received his medical degree in 1964 and started his career as a pediatrician at hospitals in Chicago and Boston. For more than 25 years, he worked in California and Texas, including as the medical director at a pain management clinic in Houston.

In 2006, court records show, federal prosecutors charged him with tax evasion. He had hidden more than $1 million in income offshore with the help of a corrupt financial planner, they said.

He was convicted despite insisting that the planner had duped him. His wife divorced him, and he spent three years in prison and three more on probation. Regulators in Texas and California revoked his medical licenses, according to government documents; his licenses in Arizona and Massachusetts expired.

After leaving prison in 2009, Mr. Miller moved to Tucson, Ariz. His older brother, Alan Miller, spent part of each year there, and they lived together for about a year until Stephen moved into a trailer. His main income was $2,000 a month in Social Security benefits.

In late 2019, Alan was hospitalized with a serious infection. Stephen contacted Alan’s son, Geoffrey Miller, who flew in from Massachusetts. He and Stephen were not close, although Geoffrey said he remembered that when he was a boy and his uncle was overseas in the U.S. Air Force, Stephen would send him crystallized ginger candies from Japan.

The doctors said Alan would die soon. Geoffrey said he wanted his father to die in the hospital, but Stephen, without his nephew’s permission, persuaded the doctors to release him. Reluctantly, Geoffrey moved Alan back home with round-the-clock nursing care and morphine to manage his pain. He made a chart to track when the drug was to be given. He and Stephen would take shifts.

Geoffrey said he realized within a couple of days that Stephen was not giving Alan the morphine and would not explain why. Not long after that, Geoffrey was out having pizza with relatives one night when Stephen called.

We can buy gas online and make this happen at home, Stephen said.

Geoffrey told him he did not want to be involved.

A day or two later, Stephen raised the subject again: Would Geoffrey accompany him to a gas distributor? Again, Geoffrey balked.

Soon, Alan died on his own. But Stephen’s behavior disturbed Geoffrey enough that he cut him off.

When he wrote his father’s obituary, he left Stephen’s name out.

The right-to-die ethos is based on a belief that mentally competent adults with terminal illnesses, incurable physical pain and degenerative conditions have a basic right to end their lives on their terms.

“Our people don’t want to die,” said Jim Schultz, the board president of Choice and Dignity, the right-to-die group Mr. Miller belongs to. “They don’t want to live in suffering.”

Helping others die is called different things — assisted suicide, self-deliverance, death with dignity, medical aid in dying, a final exit — depending on the circumstances, some legal, some not.

Opponents, including religious and disability-rights groups, argue that some people may choose suicide because of an inaccurate prognosis or pressure to do so, even after changing their minds.

Despite the opposition, medical aid in dying, under which adults with no more than six months to live can self-administer life-ending prescription medication, is now legal in 10 states and Washington, D.C. It is a topic of legislative debate in nearly 20 more states. New York lawmakers declined to approve it in 2024 for the ninth straight year.

In the United States, only Vermont and Oregon allow nonresidents to pursue medical aid in dying. Even if medical aid in dying were legal in New York, it would not have been an option for Ms. Brodhead, whose pain was chronic but did not appear to be terminal.

Choice and Dignity helps people like her, Mr. Schultz said. A 77-year-old retired Walgreens executive with a family history of cancer and a sister-in-law with advanced dementia, Mr. Schultz joined the group shortly after moving to Tucson several years ago. Mr. Miller recruited him onto the board.

Choice and Dignity’s mission, Mr. Schultz said, is to educate people on “how to get the death you want,” including preparing advance medical directives, communicating final wishes to family members and understanding the available options.

The organization has about 100 dues-paying members and a mailing list of about 500 names. Two or three times a month, Mr. Schultz said, the group refers people who are considering assisted suicide to online resources or, sometimes, to Final Exit Network, a national right-to-die group. Known as FEN, the all-volunteer group pairs “exit guides” with people who do not want to end their lives alone. (It is unclear whether Ms. Brodhead contacted FEN.)

Mr. Schultz said he had met Mr. Miller in person only a few times and described him as a “nice guy” with “a big heart” who wanted to help people.

Mr. Miller understood physical suffering as a result of the childhood scalding, an experience Geoffrey Miller said had been “really traumatic” for his uncle and had required major skin grafts.

When he was sentenced in the tax case, Stephen Miller told the judge that as a doctor he had devoted himself to aiding “others less fortunate.” He said he often treated indigent patients without pay, including Hispanic immigrants in California and drug addicts in Houston.

“I’ve spent my professional life in service to humanity,” he said.

Mr. Miller picked Ms. Brodhead up at her apartment on Nov. 8, 2023, and drove her to a gas distributor, where they got a tank of nitrogen. A store employee told The New York Times that Ms. Brodhead, who had no children, had said she wanted it for the shock absorbers on her son’s motocross bike.

They drove about a mile to the Super 8, and Mr. Miller carried the tank to the room, which Ms. Brodhead had booked in advance. A short time later, he left, drove to a hardware store, bought a wrench and returned. He left again after about an hour and headed for Albany and a flight back to Arizona.

Questioned by investigators later, Mr. Miller said he traveled the country advising people who had decided to kill themselves. Without giving details, his lawyer, Jeffrey Lichtman, told The Times in February that Mr. Miller had helped in several suicides in recent years.

Mr. Miller told investigators he had spoken with Ms. Brodhead at length about her decision before coming to Kingston. The two had exchanged emails, Mr. Lichtman told the court. He added that Mr. Miller had tried to talk Ms. Brodhead out of killing herself before eventually agreeing to help.

Mr. Miller told investigators he had sat with Ms. Brodhead while she prepared to asphyxiate herself. She hesitated briefly, he said. She told him she was going to miss her family, especially her mother. The two spoke further, and Ms. Brodhead proceeded as planned. Mr. Miller said he left after she took her last breath, and that she had paid his expenses, nothing more.

Three months later, the Ulster County authorities announced the manslaughter charge against him for violating New York’s statute against assisting in a suicide. He pleaded not guilty without contesting the basic facts.

Stephen P. Miller was charged with second-degree manslaughter three months after Ms. Brodhead’s death.Credit…City of Kingston Police Department

“This is somebody who is here because he believes in what he was charged with,” Mr. Lichtman said at the February hearing.

Mr. Miller was also charged with two assault counts, one for intentionally causing Ms. Brodhead “serious physical injury” and the other for doing so with a “dangerous instrument, to wit: a plastic bag and nitrogen gas.” He pleaded not guilty to those charges as well. The evidence against him includes his statements to investigators and security-camera footage of his movements that night. He could be sentenced to 25 years if convicted.

Mary Brodhead, Doreen’s mother, seems unconvinced that Mr. Miller should even be prosecuted.

“It was her choice,” Ms. Brodhead, 91, said in a brief interview conducted through the storm door at her tidy house on Kingston’s outskirts. “He didn’t force her to do it.”

A half-dozen surgeries had not eased the misery that prompted her daughter to take her life before turning 60, she said.

“Nothing really to talk about,” she added, walking away from the door. “She had 22 good years.”

Robert Rivas, a former general counsel for the Final Exit Network, said that, philosophically speaking, Mr. Miller “probably deserves a medal as far as I’m concerned.” As a legal matter, however, Mr. Rivas added: “He’s toast.”

FEN advises people on various end-of-life options, and its exit guides also provide companionship to those using the nitrogen method Ms. Brodhead chose.

Playing that role is not without legal risks. The guides operate under a strict protocol, typically working in pairs and meeting with potential clients in person in advance for discussion. Guides do not encourage or facilitate suicide, or handle any equipment involved, FEN says. By limiting their role to talking, exit guides are generally protected by the First Amendment.

As charged, Mr. Miller, who has no apparent connection to FEN, went well beyond that.

He has been in Arizona since being released in February on a $1 million bond arranged by his son. His next court date is in September.

Mr. Lichtman, Mr. Miller’s lawyer, said by email in June that they were “hoping to reach a plea agreement which would spare Stephen a custodial sentence.”

The Ulster County district attorney, Emmanuel Nneji, declined to comment through a spokeswoman.

Mr. Schultz of Choice and Dignity said he had only learned of Mr. Miller’s role in Ms. Brodhead’s death from news accounts. He declined to comment on the criminal charges. He said he was impressed by the “dedication to his cause” Mr. Miller had shown by traveling to New York to be with Ms. Brodhead.

At the Super 8 motel in May, an employee said that the housekeeper who found Ms. Brodhead’s body was still uneasy about going into Room 102.

Mr. Miller seems to have moved on.

Before his release in February, his lawyer told the judge Mr. Miller would “not be involved in any sort of behavior that got us here today.”

There is no indication that Mr. Miller has aided in any more suicides since then, but his dedication to his cause does not appear to have wavered.

Mr. Schultz said Mr. Miller had recently participated in a Choice and Dignity class on “deliberate life completion,” including alternatives when legal methods like medical aid in dying are not available.

The discussion included a how-to on the option Ms. Brodhead chose.

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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