Friday 23 February 2018

Voluntary euthanasia on trial

I shall be penning my thoughts on this when the verdict has been passed

Austen trial: Put aside views on assisted dying, jury told

23 February, 2018

Only Parliament can change the law on assisted dying, a jury considering a charge of aiding suicide has been told.

In her summing up at the High Court in Wellington Justice Susan Thomas told a jury of seven women and five men that they had to base their verdicts on the evidence they had heard in court at the trial of Susan Dale Austen.

Austen, 67, a former teacher from Maungaraki, Lower Hutt, has pleaded not guilty to charges of aiding Annemarie Treadwell to commit suicide, and three charges of importing the potentially lethal barbiturate pentobarbitone.

Treadwell, 77, died at a Wellington retirement village on June 6, 2016, of pentobarbitone poisoning.

She had pain in her hands, feet, hips and jaw. Treadwell also suffered from depression she first seemed to be treated for in 1991. Her depression worsened in winter.

After her death a letter and a diary was found which led the police to investigate the circumstances of her death.

Austen was the co-ordinator of the Wellington branch of the pro-euthanasia group Exit International, and Treadwell was a member.

The judge warned the jury not to be influenced by sympathy or prejudice for anyone involved in the trial. The case was not about the jury's views on assisted dying.

The topic of voluntary euthanasia could arouse strong feelings.

A bill on assisted dying passed its first reading in December that would allow for people suffering terminal illness or grievous or incurable medical conditions the option to request medically assisted dying, the judge said.

But Parliament was the only body that could change the law, and whatever was happening there was irrelevant to the decisions the jury had to make, she said.

During a two week trial the jury heard that when police started investigating Treadwell's death, it found references in her diary to a person they believed was Austen. A High Court judge allowed police to bug Austen's house and phone calls. Her emails were also collected.

It was alleged Treadwell got an email address from Austen which she could use to order pentobarbitone from China, but the first package was intercepted by Customs.

The Crown said Treadwell asked for help again and Austen ordered it for her and had it sent to another address. But the defence said there was nothing to prove that pentobarbitone was received and nothing in the diary to show who gave her pentobarbitone.

The judge told the jury that there was a risk that the diary entries may be unreliable, and there was no opportunity to question Treadwell about what she said in it.

The jury should exercise caution about whether to accept the diary entries and what weight to give to them, the judge said.

To find Austen guilty of aiding Treadwell's suicide, the jury had to be sure that Austen helped Treadwell obtain the pentobarbitone she used to commit suicide, that Austen knew Treadwell was contemplating suicide, and by helping Treadwell to obtain pentobarbitone Austen intended to help Treadwell to commit suicide.

As well as charges of importing pentobarbitone relating to two specific packages, Austen was charged with repeatedly importing it from Mexico and China between March 2012 to October 2016.

The jury retired to consider its verdicts at about 10.30am on Friday.

Euthanasia advocate acted with 'true nobility of spirit'

22 February, 2018

A euthanasia advocate accused of helping another woman kill herself acted with "compassion" and "nobility", a jury has been told.

Susan Austen is before the High Court in Wellington accused of assisting the suicide of Annemarie Treadwell in 2016 and of importing the Class C controlled drug, pentobarbitone into New Zealand.

Ms Treadwell's death was initially treated as not suspicious, but after a suicide note was found the police investigated and a postmortem revealed she had died from pentobarbitone toxicity.

The Crown says she obtained the drug from the defendant and today laid another charge of importing pentobarbitone, relating specifically to the quantity of drug Ms Treadwell used to take her own life.

In her closing address, Crown Prosecutor Kate Feltham told the jury that when Ms Treadwell told Ms Austen of her wish to die and the date she intended taking her own life, the defendant did not suggest she talk to a doctor or get any other help.

Rather she telephoned her and warned her against implicating people from the euthanasia lobby group, Exit New Zealand, in her death.

Ms Feltham said that did not fit with the defence contention that Ms Austen provided pentobarbitone to Ms Treadwell so that she would have the peace of mind of knowing she had the means to take her own life at some stage in the future if she became more ill.

"Why would that be such an issue if this was just a powder to sit in a cupboard and not be used for years? Susan Austen's concern was she knew Annemarie Treadwell wasn't going to let it sit in a cupboard for years."

"She knew it was going to be used and was concerned that in her final months Annemarie Treadwell might tell her daughter where it had come from."

Ms Feltham said Ms Austen was not on trial for being a member of a euthanasia group or for holding meetings at which people discussed suicide.

The defendant went beyond that by importing the drug pentobarbitone into New Zealand and giving it to Ms Treadwell, knowing she'd use it to end her own life, she said.

Ms Feltham said Ms Austen's emails also showed her placing orders for the drug, revealing her knowledge of how to contact people to obtain something that's not readily available or legal here.

Ms Feltham also pointed to emails from Ms Austen to drug suppliers in which she asked them to wrap the bottles differently to avoid the package being intercepted by Customs.

She said it was clear from late 2015 that Ms Treadwell was reaching out to Ms Austen for help to commit suicide, including visiting the defendant's home where the process for obtaining pentobarbitone powder was explained to her.

Defence makes closing address

The only defence witness, a psychologist, Professor Glynn Owens said in a statement there was evidence that people took comfort from having a stock of drugs like pentobarbitone, as it meant they had the means available, if need be, to help them avoid a prolonged death.

In his closing address, defence lawyer Dr Donald Stevens told the jury MsTreadwell had reached a stage in life where disease was producing pain and suffering and her life had become miserable and seemed to her, pointless.

He said Ms Austen had responded to people in that that position with compassion and nobility.

"This case has also for humanity and for others and support for others in their suffering. These are, you might think, amongst the highest qualities human beings can display and they lead to a true nobility of spirit".

Dr Stevens said the euthanasia lobby group, Exit, encouraged people to take responsibility for themselves and the emphasis was on them making their own decisions and implementing them unaided.

"Thus Susan Austen made it clear her role and that of others was limited to provision of information and support, short of helping in the act itself, because the law doesn't allow that support to be given."

"As she told the police, she'd tell people to look up [information about suicide drugs] in the Peaceful Pill handbook, which was available on the internet."

Dr Stevens said the Crown could not prove his client actually intended that MsTreadwell would die when she provided her with the restricted drug pentobarbitone.

"The Crown has to prove that Susan Austen assisted in Annemarie Treadwell's suicide...The assistance has to be in the commission of suicide. You might think it might mean assistance if not in the actual act of committing suicide, then reasonably close to it."

"If it's not close to it then there are difficulties establishing intention...How can it be established that Susan Austen had the intention to assist with a suicide, as opposed to an intention to give Annemarie Treadwell the comfort of knowing she had this [drug] available to her if at some point she decided to use it."

Dr Stevens also criticised the Crown's use of Ms Treadwell's diary, saying her death meant the defence had no opportunity to test her reliability or the accuracy of what she wrote in it.

"Nowhere in the diary does she name the person from whom she got the pentobarbitone. She describes her own efforts to import it and how she went about getting it later on, but nowhere does she describe being given it."

"On that point, the critical issue, the diary is silent, so it can't be used to advance the crown case in the way they think."

Justice Thomas will sum up the case on Friday morning and the jury will then begin its deliberations.

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