Robert Verkaik: Two cases, two contrasting results

These two different outcomes show how little scope there is for measuring compassion

Both are loving mothers, who after years of devoted care to their disabled children felt they had no choice but to take the law into their own hands. But while Bridget Gilderdale was allowed to walk free from court yesterday after helping her daughter die, Frances Inglis will spend many years in prison for killing her son.

These two startlingly different outcomes, to two seemingly similar cases of mercy killing, show how little scope there is for measuring compassion in our criminal justice system.

Critics of the law of homicide say that both Mrs Gilderdale, 55, and Mrs Inglis, 57, acted in what they thought were the best interests of their seriously ill children and should never have been charged with the offence of murder.

Yesterday, a jury from Lewes, East Sussex, cleared Mrs Gilderdale of attempted murder while last week an Old Bailey jury sitting 60 miles away in central London convicted Mrs Inglis of murder.

Both sets of jurors heard that the mothers had been devoted parents, putting the needs of their children before everything else. They had both endured years of emotional turmoil, pushing them to the brink of human tolerance. There was no hope that their children would ever lead normal lives.

But these two case are different and they are different in one very important respect.

Lynn Gilderdale, 31, who had suffered from ME since the age of 14, was mentally competent and had made it very clear that she did not want to live. Thomas Inglis, 22, had suffered terrible brain damage in 2007 and could not speak.

This distinction meant that it was not possible to charge Mrs Inglis with assisted suicide, as there was no evidence that her son intended to end his own life. The Old Bailey jury was also told that Mr Inglis was not in a persistent vegetative state and that he was making progress.

In the Inglis case, the judge outlined why Mrs Inglis's actions amounted to murder: "What you did was to take upon yourself what you thought your son's wishes would have been, to relieve him from what you described as a living hell. But you cannot take the law into your own hands and you cannot take away life, however compelling you think the reason."

This was not true in the case of Mrs Gilderdale, whose daughter had not only asked for her mother's help to die but forensic tests could not say with certainty which drugs had killed her.

While these cases can be reconciled in how they were prosecuted, there remain serious questions about the sentencing of mercy killers. As the law stands, a murder conviction attracts a mandatory life jail term.

Even if a judge is persuaded that the defendant was motivated by mercy, the most lenient sentence he can impose will still result in many years behind bars.