Mercy killings - is there a legal answer?

A pensioner has been spared a prison sentence of two years for smothering his suicidal wife in a 'mercy killing'.

Many of us will have read or heard something about euthanasia and how Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has issued a policy statement giving information and advice about the circumstances when someone assisting a person to die may be prosecuted.

Euthanasia (from the Greek, meaning good death) is generally defined as the act of killing a terminally ill person out of concern and compassion for that person's suffering.  Euthanasia is sometimes called mercy killing, but many argue that although mercy killing may include the ending of another person's life there is less certainty about whether this is at that other person's request. Hence a mercy killing can be seen as an act of killing a person who is very ill, the purpose being to stop them suffering any more pain.

How can the law deal with so called 'mercy killings'?  This week the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, sitting in the Court of Appeal, reminded us that in legal terms the matter was not of assisted suicide or euthanasia but of manslaughter.

George Webb, a pensioner, who had smothered his suicidal wife Beryl, aged 75, in a 'mercy killing' has had his two year prison sentence reduced on appeal to a 12 month suspended sentence.  It came out that Beryl had attempted suicide after her efforts to persuade her husband to help her die had failed.  George then smothered his wife.  The charge would have been murder had it not been reduced to manslaughter by a plea of diminished responsibility as a result of George's mental state - he had developed a form of depression as part of a condition referred to as a 'significant' adjustment disorder.

Can the law find a way?  Many of you reading this will have learnt that the sentence for manslaughter is discretionary, unlike murder, where the law lays down a mandatory sentence of life.  Lord Judge took care over the matter of whether a lenient sentence might send out the wrong message and stated that the court did not in fact believe that "in the unusual and particular circumstances", the "principle of the sanctity of human life would be undermined"

Lord Judge went on to say that it meant that "this lonely old man may receive the help that he will need to come to terms with the disaster that has overtaken him"

This case and others do seem to suggest that the courts do need the flexibility to issue a sentence which is appropriate taking everything into consideration.

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