Courts more inclined to go softly on 'mercy killings'

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The Independent Online

Criminal law does not recognise the concepts of "mercy killing" or euthanasia, but yesterday's decision to keep James Lawson out of prison will be interpreted as a growing willingness by the courts to "go softly" in these kinds of cases.

Lawyers said that although the law had been properly applied, there was now a clear need to remove the distinction between murder and manslaughter.

Mr Lawson had been originally charged with murder but the prosecution accepted his plea of guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.

The Lawson case has echoes of that of Janquil Turnbull who was sentenced to three years' probation last year after admitting giving her sons Richard, 20, and Robert, 23, an overdose of temazepam, codeine and paracetamol before suffocating them.

Mrs Turnbull, 53, and her husband Ron, 57, had cared for their sons all their lives without assistance, even though both sons had severe cerebral palsy. They were unable to help themselves, were partially sighted and had a poor prognosis for life. Mrs Turnbull also pleaded guilty to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.

A public inquiry is being held into the conduct of the social services and health authority on the Isle of Wight.

Malcolm Fowler, chairman of the Law Society's criminal law committee, said under the present law judges and defence lawyers were left to engage in the "unedifying spectacle" of finding reasons which showed diminished responsibility so that the defendant could be charged with manslaughter and not murder.

He called for one single offence of unlawful homicide which permitted the judge discretion to fit the sentence to the nature of the killing by using a sliding scale of seriousness.

He added: "This was a merciful disposal in a very special set of circumstances. It's true that he did not act within the law but there is a humanitarian side to this case.

"Who could say they would not have done the same if they found themselves in similar circumstances?"

Meg Andrews, a member of the Law Society's mental health and disability committee, said that the case had helped to extend the concept of diminished responsibility to carers who assisted in the deaths of the mentally ill. She said that most of the recent cases had involved the deaths of people with incurable physical diseases whose life expectancy was low.

She asked the question: "Is it acceptable to treat the deaths of the mentally ill as special cases and is it putting a low price on their lives?"