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Euthanasia advocate acquitted of aiding suicide in Rita Angus home

court-case-suicide
Photo: RNZ

News from RNZ
A Wellington euthanasia advocate has been acquitted of involvement in another woman’s suicide.

Susan Austen has also been found not guilty on one count of illegally importing the Class C controlled drug, pentobarbitone into New Zealand but guilty on two other counts of importing the drug.

The death of Annemarie Treadwell in 2016 was not initially considered suspicious, but after a suicide note was found a postmortem was carried out, which revealed she had died from pentobarbitone toxicity.

Ms Treadwell’s diary revealed she was a member of a euthanasia lobby group, which Ms Austen was also involved with. In the diary she referred to “suzy” helping her to obtain drugs from overseas and also the support “suzy” was giving her.

It was revealed during the two-week trial that police had bugged Ms Austen’s telephones, home and car.

Excerpts were played to the court, including part of a meeting of a euthanasia group held at her home.

Police were also found to have conducted a bogus drink-driving checkpoint down the road from a Hutt Valley euthanasia meeting and had used that pretext to collect the names and addresses of of those involved.

A decision from the Independent Police Conduct Authority is still pending on the legality of that operation.

Ms Austen will be sentenced in May on the charges on which she was found guilty.

However the defence lawyer, Doctor Donald Stevens asked Justice Thomas not to enter a conviction today, indicating a discharge without conviction may be sought.

News from RNZ – February 21
The defence case for a woman accused of assisting a suicide was all over within an hour in the High Court in Wellington on Wednesday.

Susan Austen is accused of assisting the suicide of Annemarie Treadwell in 2016 and importing pentobarbitone into New Zealand.

Ms Treadwell’s death was not initially considered suspicious, but after a suicide note was found, a post-mortem revealed she had died from pentobarbitone toxicity.

In his opening address Ms Austen’s lawyer Doctor Donald Stevens told the jury the charge of assisting a suicide was very rare. He said for it to succeed the Crown had to prove many elements, including that Ms Austen knew that suicide was contemplated and that she intended helping with that.

Doctor Stevens said the Crown also had to prove that a death occurred as a consequence of that assistance. However he said Ms Austen was not involved in Ms Treadwell’s suicide and she did not give her pentobarbitone intending for that to happen.

“[Her] intention was that Annemarie Treadwell should have the comfort of knowing that she had control over her end of life issues and would have that control because she had the means, if she chose to use them, of ending her life at some point in the future.”

Doctor Stevens then produced a statement from Professor Richard Glynn Owens, a psychologist who has done a lot of work on the psychology of death and dying. In the statement which was read to the jury, Professor Owens said a patient could derive several benefits from knowing they had the means to decide on their own way of dying.

“The option of having aid available in dying may … give a patient peace of mind and a sense of reassurance, which lessens anxiety and psychological suffering at the end of life. That reduction in anxiety also leads to a reduction in pain experienced by the patient.”

Professor Owen also said in his statement that knowing they had the ability to control the end of their lives could also mean a patient chose not to die prematurely, instead of waiting until a later time to ingest the life-ending drug, or in some cases, choosing not to ingest it at all.

“The peace of mind they may derive from knowing this option is available may in itself promote the prolongation of life.

“The prospect of a good death seems to confer psychological advantages, such as reduced anxiety, more attention to spiritual considerations and focus on quality of life, all of which may have the effect of extending life.”

Professor Owen said research in Oregon showed only 64 percent of patients supplied with life-ending drugs ended their lives by taking them.

“This shows that at the time a patient is prescribed a life-ending drug, it is by no means certain that someone would exercise option of taking a life ending drug.”

The Crown and Defence will make their closing addresses tomorrow.

News from RNZ – February 12
The High Court in Wellington has been told a woman on trial for helping another commit suicide had been importing the drug used in the woman’s death for years.

Susan Austen is also accused of helping Anne Marie Treadwell die by helping her access the C Class drug, pentobarbitone.

Crown prosecutor Kate Feltham says Ms Austen imported the drug between 2012 and 2016, sometimes for herself, sometimes for others. She told jurors they would hear recordings of Ms Austen’s phone calls, and from within her home, taken by the police in 2016.

“In particular you’ll hear an international exit meeting that took place in Ms Austen’s home on the second of October during which she discussed pentobarbitone, which she referred to as her favourite subject . She also discussed how to import it.”

Police also accessed emails of Ms Austen’s which show she ordered pentobarbitone from overseas suppliers, Ms Feltham said.

Ms Treadwell was planning to take her own life and confided in Ms Austen, who is now on trial for assisting her suicide, the Crown’s case says. Ms Treadwell, who was 77, died in Wellington on 6 June 2016, and was herself a euthanasia advocate.

About 40 supporters of Ms Austen were gathered outside the High Court at Wellington on Monday morning. They carried placards saying, ‘A peaceful death is everybody’s right’.

Supporters could be heard cheering when Ms Austen entered the court before the beginning of the trial.

Thirty-one witnesses are expected to appear during the three-week trial, including police officers who attended the scene of Ms Treadwell’s death, family, and experts.

Before the jury of five men and seven women was selected, Justice Thomas reminded them to set aside their own views on assisted dying and to focus on the details of the case and the law as it would be explained to them.

Ms Austen also faces two counts of importing the sedative pentobarbitone, which is a Class C controlled drug.

In court, Crown laywer Kate Feltham said Ms Treadwell kept a detailed diary and wrote in it that she had spoken to Ms Austen about wanting to take her life and when.

Police surveillance of Ms Austen also revealed the times she had purchased pentobarbitone, and given advice to Ms Treadwell about how to get it, Ms Feltham said.

Ms Treadwell suffered depression and chronic pain from arthritis when she died in 2016, but not from a terminal illness.

She was living in the Rita Angus retirement home in Kilbirnie when she died, and was found by her daughter Veronica Mansfield, who had spent the afternoon with her just the day before, Ms Feltham told the jury.

When her death was reported police did not think it was a case of suicide, but a note was found, and an autopsy revealed she had taken pentobarbitone.

Ms Treadwell’s daughter Veronica Mansfield told the court her mother had said she wouldn’t live to see another winter. She said she knew when she went to see her on 7 June 2016, she would be dead. As she spent time with her mother the night before, she told Ms Mansfield she was going to commit suicide that night, but she had not mentioned the method. They’d discussed euthanasia occasionally, with her mother joining Exit International two years before she died.

Ms Treadwell told her daughter about the meetings, but Ms Mansfield said she didn’t want to know.

“She was interested because it was something she wanted to do. She said she wanted to choose when and how she would die or leave the world,” she said.

Her mother had severe arthritis that had been causing her pain since she was in her 50s. It got to the point she had difficulty making her bed, and the arthritis in her feet meant her daily walks got shorter.

When being questioned by Donald Stevens, Ms Austen’s defence lawyer, Ms Mansfield agreed her mother had lived a full life. Mr Stevens read part of the note left by her mother, which said she was totally ready to die.

“I have been responsible for my adult life, and take full responsibility for my death. I’m 77, I’m content with what I’ve achieved and been given in my life, and I’m very grateful.”

Ms Treadwell met Ms Austen through Exit International, an organisation that advocates for euthanasia. Ms Austen was the chair of the Wellington chapter.

At her first court appearance in October 2016, Ms Austen only faced the drug charges. The charge of assisting suicide was added in April last year.

The initial charges were laid after police targeted voluntary euthanasia supporters as they left a meeting in Lower Hutt, under the guise of conducting a breath-testing operation.