PHOENIX — An 86-year-old man who carried out a mercy killing by shooting his ailing wife and high-school sweetheart in the head was sentenced Friday to probation after a hearing in which relatives tearfully spoke on his behalf.

George Sanders could have faced more than 12 years in prison after pleading guilty to manslaughter. The judge, who complimented the prosecutor for being “courageous” in recommending probation, allowed Sanders to walk out of the courtroom.

Judge John Ditsworth said his sentence of two years’ probation was “individualized and tempers justice with mercy.”

Sanders spoke for about a minute about his love for his Virginia Sanders, 81, who he called Ginger. “Your honor, I met Ginger when she was 15 years old and I’ve loved her since she was 15 years old. I loved her when she was 81 years old,” he said, trembling.

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Sanders was arrested Nov. 9 after he says his wife begged him to shoot her at their home in the retirement community of Sun City outside Phoenix. He was initially charged with first-degree murder before reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors.

“The family very much loved their mother,” prosecutor Blaine Gadow told the judge Friday as he recommended a sentence of probation, noting the “very unique, difficult circumstances of this case.”

Steve Sanders, the defendant’s son, spoke on behalf of his father. Breaking down at time in tears, Steve Sanders explained how his father had been Virginia Sanders’ sole caregiver as her health deteriorated. “I fully believe that the doctors visits, the appointments, the medical phone calls and the awaiting hospital bed led to the decision that my parents made together,” he said. “I do not fault my father.”

Sanders said his wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1969, and the couple moved from Washington state to Arizona in the 1970s. She had been in a wheelchair since 1971.

Eventually, his health deteriorated, and he said it became more difficult to care for his wife. He said she was diagnosed with gangrene on her foot a few days before the shooting and was set to be admitted to a hospital, then a nursing home.

“It was just the last straw,” Sanders told a detective in November. “She didn’t want to go to that hospital … and start cutting her toes off.”

He said his wife begged him to kill her. “She was saying, ‘Do it. Do it. Do it.’ And I just let it go.”