Feb. 16, 2011— -- A bizarre murder trial set to begin Thursday in New York City has the makings of both a good mystery novel and a precedent-setting case on what defines assisted suicide.
On the morning of July 16, 2009, police found the body of Jeffrey Locker, 52, a father of three and a motivational speaker from Long Island, slumped over the steering wheel of his black station wagon. Locker's hands were tied behind his back, his chest was punctured by multiple stab wounds, and his wallet was missing.
The prime suspect was caught later that day. Kenneth Minor, 38, an unemployed computer technician and a drug addict with a long criminal history, was seen on video withdrawing $1,000 from several ATMs using Locker's bank card.
When cops caught up with Minor, he told them an incredible story: Locker approached him on a street corner and asked his help to commit suicide. He promised to give him his ATM card and PIN number as payment for his assistance.
Minor told police Locker drove through the streets of uptown Manhattan looking for someone to "do a Kevorkian," according to court documents and published accounts of a written statement he gave police.
"Locker said it had to look like a robbery so his family can get what they deserve," Minor wrote.
In the year and half since Minor's arrest, new evidence has emerged suggesting that the man is telling the truth and Locker was indeed looking to kill himself.
Locker had made a fortune from his speeches teaching people how to deal with stress, but evidence from the months before his death suggest he was deeply in debt and took out a $4 million life insurance policy on himself for his family. Minor's lawyer says it is evidence he was planning to kill himself.
Suspect Says Jeffrey Locker Wanted Him to 'Do a Kevorkian'
A court had ordered Locker to pay back $121,000 he made investing in a Ponzi scheme organized by convicted conman Lou Perlman, the music impresario behind boy bands the Backstreet Boys and N'Sync.
The strange tale of how and why Minor agreed to get into Locker's car that morning may be of interest to jurors, but the ultimate question will come down to what he did in the car.
Did he "actively" murder Locker or did he "passively" assist in his suicide? Minor's defense will turn on that question.
Though state law classifies "causing or aiding" someone in a suicide as manslaughter, Minor is charged with second-degree murder. Prosecutors argue that murder is murder, even at someone's request.
Minor's lawyer, Daniel Gotlin, told ABCNews.com that assisted suicide generally brings a charge of manslaughter, or manslaughter is included as a lesser offense – meaning a jury can chose between murder or manslaughter.
In Minor's case it is "all or nothing," said Gotlin. The burden of proof, he said, is on the prosecution to prove Minor "actively murdered" Locker.
Gotlin offered a manslaughter plea with a maximum sentence of 15 years. The prosecutor rejected the deal and decided to seek a murder charge with a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Was Jeffrey Locker a Victim of Murder or Assisted Suicide?
In a brief filed last month, New York City Assistant District Attorney Peter Casalaro argued that Minor did not play a passive role – like putting poison in a cup for the suicide to drink – but actively murdered Locker but plunging the knife into his chest.
Gotlin says he will present experts to prove that Minor played only a passive role – simply holding the knife against the steering while Locker threw himself against the blade.
"It is as simple as active or passive," Gotlin said. "We're going to present defense experts that say Locker lunged, by himself, on to the knife. Their medical examiner is going to say my client plunged the knife into him," he said.
"That's the whole case: active or passive. All or nothing," the lawyer said.
The New York District Attorney's office said it would not comment on a case currently before the court.