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Joseph H. Low - News Articles

Manslaughter charge dismissed against Westminster woman

May 29, 2006
By John McDonald
The Orange County Register

Judith Lopez spent most of her adult life as a devoted wife and dedicated government worker. That changed on Oct. 18, 2002, when she was booked by Westminster police on suspicion of murder.

Police said she assisted in the suicide of her long-suffering husband.

Law enforcement officials at the time said it was the first case in memory of an assisted suicide case in Orange County.

The case hung over Lopez's head for 3-1/2 years.

A few weeks ago, it was quietly dismissed.

Lopez, now 63, was married to Mariano Lopez for 32 years. On the day he died, the gray-haired woman cried as she gave a videotaped statement to police, her lawyer, Joseph H. Low IV, said.

She told police she had given him a myriad of prescription medications because of pain from cancer treatments, along with his emphysema, pneumonia and a spinal injury.

The couple had met when both were in graduate school studying Spanish. She was from the Midwest and he was from Cuba, Low said. They came to Orange County and worked together at the Social Security office in Santa Ana, translating for those who only spoke Spanish.

They were frequent travelers who loved to cook and garden together when they were at home.

The coroner had difficulty finding the cause of death. Judith Lopez was released from jail four days after her arrest. She returned to work and found co-workers supportive, but she lived alone in the Westminster house she had shared with Mariano for 23 years, Low said.

Despite her release, the case hung over her head as the Orange County coroner ran extensive toxicological tests to determine the cause of Mariano's death.

No charge was filed until September 2004, based on a finding by the coroner that the death was the result of an overdose of prescription medications. Lopez was charged with voluntary manslaughter but was allowed to remain free pending prosecution.

She refused to plea bargain, Low said.

"She took seriously the meaning of 'in sickness and in health' and 'till death do us part,'" Low said. "She would never have helped him commit suicide. She feared he would go to hell."

Experts were hired to review the medical conditions and the effects of the various drugs.

Deputy Orange County District Attorney Margaret Roper was assigned the case six months ago.

She said that she asked the coroner's office to review some notes submitted to her by the defense, and officials decided to conduct some new tests on tissues from the liver and brain of the body.

"The result was they changed the cause of death to undetermined," Roper said. She said the levels of prescription medications in the body were high but not above therapeutic levels. It could not be concluded that the medications caused the death, she said.

Roper went before Judge Marc Kelly and asked that the case be dismissed based on the new finding on the cause of death. He agreed, and Lopez walked out of the courthouse a free woman.

Lopez declined to be interviewed by a reporter. But Low spoke on her behalf.

"She had kept all of his stuff," Low said of Mariano Lopez's belongings. "She was afraid to get rid of anything."

Now Lopez has given many things to Goodwill, he said.

"She said she wasn't sure what to do," Low said, "but now she can move forward."

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