Call for assisted dying law as pensioner cleared over husband's suicide pact death

A pensioner has been cleared of murdering her terminally ill husband in a "mercy killing" after they both took an overdose of prescription drugs in a suicide pact.

Mavis Eccleston outside Stafford Crown Court
Mavis Eccleston outside Stafford Crown Court

Mavis Eccleston, aged 80, broke down in the dock at Stafford Crown Court today as the jury also found her not guilty of the manslaughter of 81-year-old Dennis Eccleston at their home last year.

The jury of eight men and four women took four hours to reach their unanimous decisions on both counts, which means they believe Mr Eccleston took the lethal overdose himself in the full knowledge of the outcome.

Mrs Eccleston, formerly of Huntington, near Cannock, gasped and started to cry as the verdicts were returned following a two-week trial.

'There must be a change in the law'

Speaking outside court after the verdicts, Dennis and Mavis's daughter Joy Munn called for a change in the law to allow assisted dying in the UK and protect people like her mother from prosecution.

"Mavis and Dennis, our mom and dad, were married for almost 60 years and they were absolutely devoted to each other," she said.

"In February last year our dad was terminally ill with bowel cancer. He had been extremely ill for some time and was suffering intense physical pain, alongside symptoms he found distressing and undignified.

Police in Raven Close, Huntington, after Dennis Eccleston died

"He had expressed for many months a wish to end his life in order to avoid more suffering and a prolonged death, but he was too ill to travel to Switzerland.

"Our mom did not wish to live without him, her husband, the love of her life, and so she took an overdose together with him.

"Our parent’s love for each other was so clear that hospital staff pushed their beds together so that mom and dad could hold hands and face each other during our dad’s final hours.

"Our family are grateful and relieved that the jury in this case could also recognise our mom’s love for our dad.

"But since dad’s death our family has been through a terrible ordeal, waiting over 18 months for this court case, worrying that having already lost our dad to cancer, we might now see our mom imprisoned.

"We do not believe this needed to happen.

"If there had been an assisted dying law here in the UK our dad would have been able to have the choice to end his suffering, with medical support and with his loved ones around him. He wouldn’t have had to ask our mom to do something that is considered breaking the law.

Stafford Crown Court, where the trial was held

"Our dad would have been devastated at the thought of his beloved wife waiting to find out if, at the age of 80, she would face a life sentence in prison simply for respecting his wishes.

"He would have been heartbroken if he had known his wife and family would have had to endure 18 months of extreme anxiety and distress.

"We believe there must be a change in the law so that dying people are not forced to suffer, to make plans in secret or ask loved ones to risk prosecution by helping them, and so that no other family has to experience the pain our family has had to endure. "

Suicide pact

The couple, who were married for nearly 60 years, had talked constantly to their family of "going together" after Dennis was diagnosed with end-stage bowel cancer in 2015, and left a suicide note explaining their intention.

But the prosecution based their case around an admission by Mavis to nurses the day after Dennis' death that he had not known she was giving him a lethal cocktail of tablets.

More from the trial:

She later told police he had told her to do it and was fully aware of what he was taking.

The couple were discovered unconscious at their bungalow in Raven Close, Huntington, on February 19 last year.

Former pitman Dennis, who had signed 'do not resuscitate' forms, died the following day but his wife survived after being given an antidote on hospital.

'Compassion should not be a crime' - Dignity in Dying

The chief executive of Dignity in Dying, which is campaigning for assisted dying to be legal for terminally ill adults, welcomed the verdicts.

Sarah Wootton said: "We are pleased with the jury’s verdict today, but Dennis should not have been forced to take such drastic actions and Mavis should never have been put in this agonising position.

“Dennis was suffering from terminal bowel cancer and struggling with unbearable pain and other deeply distressing symptoms.

"He simply wanted to die on his own terms rather than endure a protracted, painful death, but because of the UK’s outdated laws on assisted dying, Dennis felt his only option was to end his own life behind closed doors.

"Mavis, his devoted wife, felt she had to respect his wishes, but then faced the prospect of life imprisonment simply for acting out of love."

She added: "Compassion should not be a crime, but under the UK’s broken laws, it is.

"What we need is a robustly safeguarded law that provides choice and control to dying people who want it, takes agonising decisions out of the hands of their loved ones and protects the rest of society.

"Not only is this a law that 84 per cent of the British public want to see, it’s a choice that terminally ill people in ten jurisdictions across the US, Victoria in Australia and across Canada are already allowed to make.

"We urge Parliamentarians to act – to continue to brush this issue to one side is to prolong the suffering of dying people and their families."

Adjoining beds

Stafford Crown Court heard that the couple were put in adjoining beds and held hands as Dennis passed away.

The defence argued that this had been a suicide pact, ruling out murder although allowing a verdict of manslaughter.

However a medical expert cast doubt on the prosecution's assertion that death had been caused by the overdose administered by Mavis Eccleston.

Professor Safa Al-Sarraj, a consultant neurologist, told the jury it was more likely that death was caused by the palliative use of morphine in hospital to ease Mr Eccleston's pain, or a combination of the two lots of drugs.

Giving evidence during the 10-day trial, Mavis Eccleston described how on the night of the overdose her husband had begged her to fetch medication from the cupboard and that it was "understood between them" what that meant.

He had kissed her hand in thanks after she had told him she would "go with his wishes" to die.

After they had both taken the medication, she had kissed her husband and said "goodnight darling" before going to lie on the sofa.

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