22 Feb 2018

Euthanasia advocate acted with 'true nobility of spirit'

8:54 pm on 22 February 2018

A euthanasia advocate accused of helping another woman kill herself acted with "compassion" and "nobility", a jury has been told.

Trial of Susan Austen at Wellington High Court.

Trial of Susan Austen at Wellington High Court. Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King;

Susan Austen is before the High Court in Wellington accused of assisting the suicide of Annemarie Treadwell in 2016 and of importing the Class C controlled drug, pentobarbitone into New Zealand.

Ms Treadwell's death was initially treated as not suspicious, but after a suicide note was found the police investigated and a postmortem revealed she had died from pentobarbitone toxicity.

The Crown says she obtained the drug from the defendant and today laid another charge of importing pentobarbitone, relating specifically to the quantity of drug Ms Treadwell used to take her own life.

In her closing address, Crown Prosecutor Kate Feltham told the jury that when Ms Treadwell told Ms Austen of her wish to die and the date she intended taking her own life, the defendant did not suggest she talk to a doctor or get any other help.

Rather she telephoned her and warned her against implicating people from the euthanasia lobby group, Exit New Zealand, in her death.

Ms Feltham said that did not fit with the defence contention that Ms Austen provided pentobarbitone to Ms Treadwell so that she would have the peace of mind of knowing she had the means to take her own life at some stage in the future if she became more ill.

"Why would that be such an issue if this was just a powder to sit in a cupboard and not be used for years? Susan Austen's concern was she knew Annemarie Treadwell wasn't going to let it sit in a cupboard for years."

"She knew it was going to be used and was concerned that in her final months Annemarie Treadwell might tell her daughter where it had come from."

Ms Feltham said Ms Austen was not on trial for being a member of a euthanasia group or for holding meetings at which people discussed suicide.

The defendant went beyond that by importing the drug pentobarbitone into New Zealand and giving it to Ms Treadwell, knowing she'd use it to end her own life, she said.

Ms Feltham said Ms Austen's emails also showed her placing orders for the drug, revealing her knowledge of how to contact people to obtain something that's not readily available or legal here.

Ms Feltham also pointed to emails from Ms Austen to drug suppliers in which she asked them to wrap the bottles differently to avoid the package being intercepted by Customs.

She said it was clear from late 2015 that Ms Treadwell was reaching out to Ms Austen for help to commit suicide, including visiting the defendant's home where the process for obtaining pentobarbitone powder was explained to her.

Defence makes closing address

The only defence witness, a psychologist, Professor Glynn Owens said in a statement there was evidence that people took comfort from having a stock of drugs like pentobarbitone, as it meant they had the means available, if need be, to help them avoid a prolonged death.

In his closing address, defence lawyer Dr Donald Stevens told the jury MsTreadwell had reached a stage in life where disease was producing pain and suffering and her life had become miserable and seemed to her, pointless.

He said Ms Austen had responded to people in that that position with compassion and nobility.

"This case has also demonstrated...love for humanity and for others and support for others in their suffering. These are, you might think, amongst the highest qualities human beings can display and they lead to a true nobility of spirit".

Dr Stevens said the euthanasia lobby group, Exit, encouraged people to take responsibility for themselves and the emphasis was on them making their own decisions and implementing them unaided.

"Thus Susan Austen made it clear her role and that of others was limited to provision of information and support, short of helping in the act itself, because the law doesn't allow that support to be given."

"As she told the police, she'd tell people to look up [information about suicide drugs] in the Peaceful Pill handbook, which was available on the internet."

Dr Stevens said the Crown could not prove his client actually intended that MsTreadwell would die when she provided her with the restricted drug pentobarbitone.

"The Crown has to prove that Susan Austen assisted in Annemarie Treadwell's suicide...The assistance has to be in the commission of suicide. You might think it might mean assistance if not in the actual act of committing suicide, then reasonably close to it."

"If it's not close to it then there are difficulties establishing intention...How can it be established that Susan Austen had the intention to assist with a suicide, as opposed to an intention to give Annemarie Treadwell the comfort of knowing she had this [drug] available to her if at some point she decided to use it."

Dr Stevens also criticised the Crown's use of Ms Treadwell's diary, saying her death meant the defence had no opportunity to test her reliability or the accuracy of what she wrote in it.

"Nowhere in the diary does she name the person from whom she got the pentobarbitone. She describes her own efforts to import it and how she went about getting it later on, but nowhere does she describe being given it."

"On that point, the critical issue, the diary is silent, so it can't be used to advance the crown case in the way they think."

Justice Thomas will sum up the case on Friday morning and the jury will then begin its deliberations.

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