Ex-policeman walks free after mercy killing of wife

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The Independent Online

Shortly after 10am on 15 October, Brian Blackburn put a blanket over his wife, Margaret, as she lay on the sofa in their home, kissed her and placed a flannel over her face so she could not see what would follow.

Shortly after 10am on 15 October, Brian Blackburn put a blanket over his wife, Margaret, as she lay on the sofa in their home, kissed her and placed a flannel over her face so she could not see what would follow.

He then took a knife and made a deep cut into each of her wrists, severing an artery. Holding Margaret in his arms, the retired policeman with 30 years of exemplary service whispered to his wife: "I am here you know".

Within 20 minutes, she was dead. Mr Blackburn, 62, then combed his wife's hair in the way she had specified and, once more, took up the knife, making identical cuts in his own wrists. It was supposed to have been the final act in what Mrs Blackburn had told her husband would be "the most loving thing you can do for me". But when two police officers arrived nine hours later at the couple's home in Surrey, they found Mr Blackburn still on the phone to the 999 operator, wearing a bloodstained cardigan, shirt and trousers.

He told officers: "I did what she asked me to. I failed myself. Now I have to pay the price."

Yesterday, a judge decided that Mr Blackburn had already paid the price in his own anguish and that, far from being an act of cruelty, the killing of his wife had been the product of a "very loving relationship".

As the former policeman walked free from the Old Bailey in London, he was comforted by the sons of the woman whose life he had taken.

The court heard that Mr Blackburn had acted to end the suffering of his wife, also 62, after she had correctly diagnosed herself as dying from stomach cancer last summer and pleaded with him to hasten her death.

After 20 years of working as a nurse in a hospice, Mrs Blackburn knew only too well what awaited her. She had also developed an "abhorrence" for the surgery that she had seen many of her patients undergo, only to die in pain.

In a frank interview with police, Mr Blackburn said: "My wife had seen people die of cancer for 20 years. She just did not want to go like that - slowly. She was frightened the tumour was going to burst and, if it did, she was going to be in real trouble. She wanted it over and done with before that."

A post-mortem examination revealed Mrs Blackburn had been correct in her diagnosis.

A tumour weighing 3kg was found in her stomach and the court was told the former nurse would have had only weeks to live. Medical experts concluded Mr Blackburn's attempt on his own life had been genuine.

Peter Binder, for the defence, said: "Brian Blackburn was devoted to his wife and could not bear to see her suffer."

Mr Blackburn, who served with the Hampshire force before retiring with his wife to Ash, near Aldershot, pleaded guilty to manslaughter. A plea of not guilty to murder was accepted by the prosecution.

The judge, Richard Hawkins QC, imposed a suspended prison sentence of nine months after hearing the defendant had already spent three months in jail on remand. Citing exceptional circumstances, Judge Hawkins said: "From late September 2004 your wife began to ask you to end her life as the last loving thing you could do for her."

As Mr Blackburn left the court, he was accompanied by Mrs Blackburn's adult sons from her previous marriage, Colin and Martin Lawrence. Referring to him as "Dad", the two men pledged their support of their stepfather, who had married Margaret in 1998.

In a letter to the judge, the brothers wrote: "The act that Dad undertook was totally unselfish and we have no bad feelings whatsoever."

The case prompted calls for a change in the law to allow terminally ill people to die at a time of their choosing.

But others insisted the "emotional nature" of a case such as this should not detract from the seriousness of committing a killing.

Julia Millington, director of the ProLife Alliance, said: "Mr Blackburn's sentence in no way reflects the gravity of the crime he has committed. Instead it sends out a clear and alarming message that will not deter other people from imitating him."


Brian Blackburn's account of his wife's request for help, as told to police investigating her death

Margaret Blackburn: "You have got to do something."

Brian Blackburn: "What?"

Margaret: "Well, you are going to have to cut my wrists and then do yours and we will meet each other on the other side."

Brian: "I can't."

Margaret: "You have got to. I can't go to the hospital. It's the most loving thing, the last loving thing you can do for me."

Brian Blackburn's account to police of his wife's death

Brian: "I put a flannel over her face so she could not see. I held her. I was telling her, 'I'm here you know'. And then she was dead. I took the flannel off and combed her hair like she said she wanted. Then I got a knife and cut my wrists."