Euthanasia advocate faces jail for trying to kill mother

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The Independent Online

The euthanasia debate was reiginited yesterday when a New Zealand woman who gave a morphine overdose to her terminally ill mother was convicted of attempted murder.

Lesley Martin, an intensive care nurse, faces up to 10 years in prison after a jury at Wanganui High Court found her guilty of trying to kill her mother, Joy, aged 69, by administering the overdose in May 1999.

Police investigated the case, but took no action until Martin, 40, published a book, To Die Like a Dog, in 2002 in which she described events leading to her mother's death.

The verdict shocked many in New Zealand, where legislation to legalise voluntary euthanasia was defeated by just two votes last year. The Prime Minister, Helen Clark, voiced qualified support for the "death with dignity" bill, and polls show that most New Zealanders support doctor-assisted suicide for people with terminal or incurable illnesses.

The three-week case was closely watched by campaigners on both sides of the debate, and was attended by Philip Nitschke, from Australia, who is known as "Doctor Death" because of his outspoken support for mercy killing, and Brian Johnston, a Californian anti- euthanasia lobbyist.

As she left the dock, a visibly distressed Martin called out that the verdict was unjust. Outside court, she said: "I don't know what else I can do to get New Zealanders off their bums and start taking part in the push towards humane legislation." She was freed until sentencing on 30 April.

The jury heard that Joy Martin underwent an operation for bowel cancer but declined further surgery after a secondary tumour was found on her liver.

In acute pain, depressed and beset by constant nausea, she told her son, Michael: "If there was a switch, I'd throw it now. I'm sick of this."

Martin, of New Plymouth, did not give evidence in court, but in the book she quoted her mother as saying: "When it's time... please... don't let me lie there not alive, not dead... please help me... be quick. And don't get caught."

Martin, who was born in London, wrote that she promised not to let her mother die in pain and, after seeing her weep for the first time, gave her 60mg of morphine. She later put a pillow over her head. She was arrested after telling police that the book was a true account of her actions.

A post-mortem examination report stated that Mrs Martin died of respiratory arrest, as a result of morphine poisoning or broncho-pneumonia. There was no evidence of suffocation and she was acquitted on a second charge of attempting to murder her mother by suffocating her with a pillow.

The investigating police officer, Detective Sergeant Ross Grantham, told the court he had warned Martin that she could be prosecuted if her book was published. "She told me I had no idea what it's like to see someone you love wither up and die," he said. "She told me it was impossible to watch her mum slowly die this painful death."

Martin became the face of the pro-euthanasia lobby in New Zealand after publication of her book, and founded Exit New Zealand, a group affiliated with Dr Nitschke's Australian organisation.

She campaigned energetically in the lead-up to her trial, travelling widely and taking part in debates.

Assisted suicide is legal in Belgium and the Netherlands. The latter had tolerated the practice unofficially for years, but it was finally made law last April.

The patient has to be of sound mind, the doctor must get a second opinion and only the doctor - not the family - can administer the lethal drug.

Switzerland has adopted similar legislation, while Luxembourg has only narrowly rejected changes to its laws.

In the US, the state of Oregon permits doctor-assisted suicide, but there are frequent legal challenges.