'Mercy killing' pensioner freed from sentence

A pensioner who smothered his 75-year-old wife in a "mercy killing" was freed from a two-year prison sentence today.

George Webb, 73, from Sheffield, was cleared in December of murdering his wife Beryl but found guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

At the Court of Appeal today, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, sitting in London with Mr Justice Eady and Mr Justice Simon, allowed his appeal against sentence.

The judges replaced the two-year prison term imposed at Sheffield Crown Court with a suspended 12-month sentence.

Lord Judge, who described it as a "tragic case", said the court did not believe "in the unusual and particular circumstances" that the "principle of the sanctity of human life would be undermined" by the reduction in his sentence, which will be accompanied by a supervision order.

He added that it would mean "that this lonely old man may receive the help that he will need to come to terms with the disaster that has overtaken him".

Webb, who has spent 90 days in custody - the equivalent of a six month sentence - was not present for the ruling.

Mrs Webb had a number of ailments - some real and some imagined - and had considered suicide for years, Sheffield Crown Court heard.

She had begged her husband of 49 years to help her die.

Last May she attempted to kill herself with 34 lorazepam tablets washed down with brandy and fizzy orange.

When Webb feared this had not worked, he smothered his sleeping wife with a plastic bag and a towel, the court heard.

Lord Judge said the jury concluded that he suffered from diminished responsibility at the time of the killing - that his mental responsibility for his actions was substantially impaired.

Webb had developed a psychiatric condition, described as a "significant" adjustment disorder, and one of its prominent features was depression.

The judge said: "It is clear from the evidence... that the mental turmoil engendered by the impossible situation in which he had found himself must have been dreadful."

He pointed out: "Cases of this kind are always unique. Each of them has its own individual and singular characteristics."

The argument put forward on Webb's behalf at the appeal was that careful though the trial judge, Mr Justice McCombe, had been in his approach to the case, "the end result was a sentence that was too long".

It was argued that "insufficient allowance" was made for the mitigating features.

Lord Judge added: "We recognise, as the judge was at pains to underline, that this is not a case of assisted suicide. It is a case of manslaughter.

"Nevertheless, as it seems to us, there are features of this case which bring it close to an assisted suicide."

The couple had become increasingly isolated and lived together in their "own bubble".

Mrs Webb had "reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision" to end her life, said Lord Judge.

He added: "In acting as he did, Mr Webb was motivated not so much by compassion for her, but by a desire to enable her to achieve what she had decided she wanted to do.

"He had in the past tried to dissuade her from taking any action that might end her own life and what he did amounted to reluctant assistance in the light of her determined wishes."

Webb was a man of previous good character with an impeccable work record.

Lord Judge said: "On any view, this was an extraordinarily difficult sentencing decision. The killing of Mrs Webb was, and will always will be, the result of an unlawful act, but on the basis of diminished responsibility."

The court ruled that the husband's actions came "very close to the offence of assisting in his wife's intended suicide".

When she failed to achieve her "clear and unequivocal wish to end her life", he took over from her.

Lord Judge added: "All this has to be set in the context of a man whose responsibility, if not altogether extinguished, was substantially reduced.

"We accept the submission that, if he himself had not been in the situation in which he was and suffering from the condition from which he did suffer, it is most unlikely that this killing would have happened.

"We remind ourselves of the turmoil which he must have suffered as he committed the last fatal act."

Lord Judge concluded: "The appellant has now served the equivalent of six months' imprisonment.

"In the unusual and particular circumstances of this case we do not believe that the principle of the sanctity of human life would be undermined if the sentence imposed on him were reduced to a sentence of 12 months' imprisonment, suspended."

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