To those who knew her in the shoe department at a Sears store in Orlando, Georgette Smith seemed the most devoted of daughters. Occasionally, her boss, Ana Ruiz, would ask her to put in a bit of overtime. Smith, 42, always politely declined. “She didn’t work one minute more,” says Ruiz. “She’d say, ‘I’ve got to go and give my mom a bath and feed her and take care of her.’ ” On March 8, Smith confided to Ruiz that she was thinking of putting her 68-year-old mother, Shirley Egan, in a nursing home. Egan has emphysema that leaves her short of breath, she suffers from chronic pain and is blind in one eye as a result of a hit-and-run accident nearly two years ago. But, recalls Ruiz, Smith said she first “needed to talk it over with her [mother].”
A few hours later, Smith lay paralyzed from the neck down, shot in the neck by the mother she so faithfully cared for. Doctors told Smith she would not recover any movement and would never breathe again without a ventilator. In despair, she obtained a court order directing her hospital to let her die. “All I can do is wink my eyes, wiggle my nose and wiggle my tongue,” she said in a deposition. “God, don’t leave me this way.” On May 19, after a last, tearful meeting with her mother, Smith was sedated and removed from the ventilator; minutes later she was dead. For days there was speculation that Egan would face murder charges, but on May 25, State Attorney Lawson Lamar said he would pursue only two counts of attempted murder.
Exactly what provoked the shooting, which took place at the apartment Smith shared with her boyfriend, Larry Videlock, 50, and her mother, remains unclear. Egan, a small, frail woman who stands only 4’11” and weighs 85 pounds, told an ambulance attendant who responded to the shooting that she had merely intended to fire over Smith’s head and “scare the hell out of her,” supposedly because Smith and Videlock had been teasing her. But Det. Riggs Gay told The Orlando Sentinel that the mother became upset when she heard her daughter talking to her boyfriend about taking Egan to a nursing home.
It was the first time anyone around the Rosewood Village Apartments, where the three had lived together since January, could remember any bad blood between mother and daughter. Residents had often seen Smith—who has two daughters of her own, Candace, 22, and Joeleen Hill, 19—tending to her mother, who sometimes required as much as a half hour to shuffle across the lawn for her exercise. “I used to see the mother on her back porch, sitting down and talking to Georgette,” says homemaker Nadeen Gomez, who lives in the complex. “She was a nice girl. I never heard them arguing.”
Before the ventilator was turned off, Smith, with her mother present, was interviewed in her hospital room by the state prosecutor and gave her version of the shooting. Egan’s court-appointed attorney, Robert Wesley, describes the initial reunion of mother and daughter as “extraordinarily emotional” and “filled with love.” According to jail chaplain Ruthie “Williams, who later spoke with a tearful Egan, Smith “told her mother that she loved her and forgave her.”
All along, Egan’s attorney contended that his client should not be held responsible for killing her daughter. “Georgette Smith didn’t die because of the actions of Shirley Egan,” he says. “Ms. Smith could have lived for a long time. But she made an independent decision not to live in that manner.” Other legal experts maintained, however, that the state would have had no trouble sustaining such charges. “The unanimous answer from every court [that has dealt with a case like this],” says David Orentlicher, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis, “has been that the underlying illness or injury that the victim suffered was the cause of death.” In the end, prosecutor Lamar decided that Egan’s ill health and the fact that the victim was her daughter tipped the balance against the murder charge.
Ironically, by shooting the person best equipped to help her, Egan may have guaranteed that, one way or another, she will end up institutionalized. “I don’t think she could live on her own,” says Wesley. “I think she’s always going to need someone to help her.”
Fannie Weinstein and Amy Laughinghouse in Orlando and Aixa M. Pascual in Miami