The family of a pensioner who was cleared of the “mercy killing” murder of her terminally-ill husband have called for a change in the law on assisted dying.
Relatives of 80-year-old Mavis Eccleston questioned why she had faced a Crown Court trial and a possible life sentence, and said Dennis Eccleston should have had the option of ending his life with medical support.
A two-week trial at Stafford Crown Court heard Mrs Eccleston helped Mr Eccleston, who was in the “end stages” of bowel cancer, prepare prescription medication – after agreeing to “go with his wishes” to die.
The couple were both admitted to hospital after taking overdoses in February last year at their home in Huntington, near Cannock.
Mr Eccleston, 81, died a day later, but his wife was arrested after two mental health nurses said she had told them he was unaware he was being given a potentially lethal overdose.
During her evidence to the jury, Mrs Eccleston said she had fetched medication from a nearby cupboard at her husband’s request, adding: “It was an understanding between us. He had to tell me what I had got to do.”
After they had both taken medication, the court heard, Mrs Eccleston kissed her husband on the head, pulled a cover over him, and he said “good night darling” as she went to lie down on a sofa.
Answering questions from defence barrister Mark Heywood QC, Mrs Eccleston added that she had written a note saying the couple had decided to take their own lives, to explain their actions to their children.
“The next thing I knew I was in hospital,” she told the court.
Jurors took about four hours to unanimously clear Mrs Eccleston of both murder and manslaughter, after rejecting the Crown’s claim that her husband was unaware he was taking an overdose.
During the case, it was accepted that Mrs Eccleston, who said her husband had administered his own overdose, had acted out of love and compassion.
After the verdicts were returned, one of the couple’s three children, Joy Munns, read a statement outside the court building.
Calling for new laws to avoid similar prosecutions, Ms Munns, 54, said: “Our dad was terminally ill. He had been extremely ill for some time.
“He was suffering intense physical pain alongside symptoms he found distressing and undignified.
“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 mum did not wish to live without him. So she took an overdose together with him. They were found by family members and taken to hospital, where our dad died a day later.
“Our parents’ love for each other was so clear that hospital staff pushed their beds together so that mum and dad could hold hands and face each other during dad’s final hours.
“Our family are grateful and relieved that the jury in this case could also recognise our mum’s love for our dad.
“But since dad’s death our family have been through a terrible ordeal, waiting for 18 months for this court case, worrying that having already lost our dad to cancer, we might now see our mum imprisoned.”
Standing next to her mother and several other family members, Mrs Eccleston’s daughter said of the court proceedings: “We do not believe this needed to happen.
“If there had been an assisted dying law 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 asked our mum to do something that is considered breaking the law.
“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 aren’t 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.”
In a statement Sarah Wootton, the chief executive of campaign group Dignity in Dying, said compassion should not be a crime in the circumstances faced by Mrs Eccleston.
Ms 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.
“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.
“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.”