A father who helped kill his mentally ill and suicidal daughter walked free from court yesterday after a judge agreed to take into account "exceptional circumstances".
James Lawson, 52, who suffocated his 22-year-old daughter, Sarah, because she was severely depressed and wanted to die, received a two-year suspended prison sentence at Maidstone Crown Court.
After the sentence, a health authority accused during the trial of "repeatedly failing" Sarah by failing to provide treatment, insisted it was not at fault. She had been offered "comprehensive and appropriate" treatment, it said. Richard Congdon, chief executive of the Worthing Priority Care Hospital Trust in West Sussex, where Sarah had been a patient hours before her death, said: "I am convinced we offered Sarah compassionate, consistent and comprehensive forms of treatment."
Lawson, a roofer, from Worthing, killed his daughter in April last year in her bedroom by placing a plastic bag over her head and smothering her with a pillow, after she had swallowed an overdose of painkillers. He said she had been ill for 10 years and had asked to die.
Sarah, described by her parents as "funny, vivacious and intelligent", began showing signs of mental illness and depression at the age of 12. By the age of 16, she was drinking half a bottle of vodka each morning before going to work. She also began to cut her arms and legs and attempted suicide. In the week before her death, she tried to kill herself several times, her father said.
Her mother, Karen, accused the National Health Service during the trial of "completely failing" her daughter by not providing proper care. The NHS had done "absolutely nothing" for her, she claimed. Instead of seeing a psychiatrist she had been referred to a nurse, who had suggested she "take up a hobby".
Lawson, who said he had carried out a "mercy killing" after his daughter begged him to end her misery, admitted manslaughter due to diminished responsibility. Suspending the prison sentence for two years, Mr Justice Nelson said it was clear no help had been immediately available for Sarah. But he added: "Society cannot condone his [Lawson's] actions, even if it can understand."
Worthing NHS trust gave details yesterday of treatment offered to Sarah over the last two and a half years of her life which, it said, showed she had been offered comprehensive care. Mr Congden said Sarah had been diagnosed with a mental state known as emotionally unstable personality disorder, with alcoholism and depression not, as her family believed, manic depression. Personality disorder is seen by most doctors as untreatable.
Mr Congdon said Sarah had first come to the trust's notice in 1997 as an in-patient, when she was admitted to Homefield Hospital, a specialist psychiatric unit. Over the next two years she was provided with medication, in-patient treatment at Crescent House, a rehabilitation unit, group therapy, out-patient appointments with doctors and psychiatrists, occupational therapy, one-to-one appointments with a nurse, psychoanalysis and treatment for alcoholism, he said.
She was also offered referrals to the Castle, a therapeutic community, and to St George's Hospital, a specialist unit for eating disorders. Both offers were declined. "We tried our best for her. The trust offered her a high percentage of what is available," he said.
She voluntarily withdrew from treatment in October 1999 and appeared to improve, but returned to Homefield Hospital six months later in the last days of her life. She was given a treatment plan and medication and was readmitted to the Castle, but discharged herself.
On the day before her death, her family persuaded her to return to Homefield, but she was seen rolling a cannabis joint with another patient and was told to leave. At half past midnight on the night of her death, she rang Highdown Hospital, another psychiatric centre, and was told an appointment could be made in the morning. At 5am, the hospital heard that she was dead.
Aftersentence was passed, Lawson left the court smiling and said he was "relieved". In a statement, a family friend said: "The last eight years have been a nightmare for his family. He is an ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, but is relieved that it is over."
Sarah's mother, who is estranged from Lawson, said she would launch a civil case against the NHS. "Everyone physically or mentally ill should have an automatic right to receive the correct treatment," she said. "It appears people with mental health problems have to fight for the care they need, which is not right."