Friends of man who went to Dignitas clinic wait to see if they will be prosecuted

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 07 September 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4902
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

    Two friends of a man who left a care home in northeast England and travelled to Dignitas in Switzerland to take his own life are waiting to hear whether they will be prosecuted for assisting in his suicide.

    Douglas Sinclair, 76, who had multiple system atrophy, booked a taxi and left Stapleton House care home in Jarrow without saying that he was going to Newcastle upon Tyne airport to fly to Zurich. When he failed to return, the home reported him missing to police.

    The police contacted his solicitor, Christopher Potts, who told them, “I understand that he’s taken a short trip to Switzerland,” Mr Potts told the BMJ. Mr Sinclair had told staff at the home earlier that he intended to commit suicide in Switzerland, and a multiagency meeting convened by the local authority months earlier had concluded that he was mentally competent and was free to decide for himself.

    The two friends, his former next door neighbour Janet Grieves, 47, and a 48 year old man who has not been identified, were arrested and bailed by police. Officers were due to meet prosecutors this week to discuss the investigation, a spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said.

    Mr Potts said that police were looking at mobile phone records to try to find out whom Mr Sinclair had called before his death. They also have a video showing him taking a lethal cocktail of drugs at Dignitas and smiling and giving a thumbs-up sign to the camera.

    Although suicide is no longer a crime in England and Wales, assisting a suicide remains unlawful, with a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail.

    But as a result of legal action by Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, the director of public prosecutions of England and Wales, Keir Starmer, has been required to spell out the guidelines influencing prosecutors for or against a prosecution (BMJ 2010;340:c1167 doi:10.1136/bmj.c1167).

    The factors against prosecution, published last February, are that the victim (the person who committed suicide) had reached a “voluntary, clear, settled, and informed” decision to do so; the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion, gave only minor assistance, and attempted to dissuade the victim; the suspect’s actions could be characterised as “reluctant” assistance; and the suicide was reported to police.

    Mr Potts said he had spelled out the mitigating and aggravating factors to Mr Sinclair’s two friends and that they had decided to take the risk that they might be prosecuted for helping him. He said, “We made as sure as possible that we were within the mitigating guidelines and not outside them. These two individuals found themselves in an impossible situation: ‘we don’t want to do it but we can’t let the person down.’”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c4902

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