If a close friend or relative, suffering from depression, or in severe financial trouble, came to me asking for assistance in committing suicide, then I would do my best to persuade him or her that there are other, better ways out of these difficulties, and try to make sure that he/she seeks professional help. It seems like the obvious thing to do, but there have been a number of cases where would-be suicides in perfect physical health have been killed by friends or family at their own request.
These have always been difficult cases for the courts to decide. How much credence can be placed on the defendant’s story? To what extent can the fact that the deceased actually asked to be killed be treated as an extenuating circumstance? How much difference does it make if money is involved? It is not surprising that the three cases I am going to describe below had widely differing results. How would you have decided?
In a case heard at Cardiff Crown Court in 1992, Colin Lewis, a 32 year old video store manager admitted assisting the suicide of his friend, 28 year old Stuart Jones, a hospital porter. Jones had already had several bouts of depression during which he had asked his friend to kill him. Lewis drove Jones to the Pontsarn Viaduct near Merthyr Tydfil, where Jones sat on the parapet and begged his friend to push him off. In court, Lewis claimed not to be able to remember what happened next, however, four days after Jones had plunged to his death, Lewis walked into a police station and admitted killing his friend. He was initially charged with murder, but the charge was later dropped, and he was found guilty of assisting suicide, and jailed for two years.
Lewis was fortunate to be convicted on the lesser charge. Homicide, even at the request of the deceased, is held to be murder and not assisted suicide under U.K. law. Had the crime taken place before 1961 his position would have been even more serious. Until the Suicide Act of 1961, suicide was, in U.K. Law, a felony. The successful offender in such a case was clearly beyond the reach of the law, but others were not. The suicide’s property was forfeit, adding to the distress of grieving relatives, while if the suicide attempt failed, the offender was guilty of the misdemeanour of attempted suicide. It was not unknown in the 19th century for failed suicides to be brought before a court, lectured on the error of their ways, and fined. In recent years, however, such prosecutions were only brought for the protection of the accused. In 1959, out of a total of 4980 cases of attempted suicide known to the police, only 518 prosecutions took place.
Before 1961, an accessory to the suicide of another was guilty of murder, for which the penalty was death. If a person attempted suicide, failed, but killed another person instead, then he or she, by the doctrine of transferred malice, was guilty of murder. It followed that the survivor of a suicide pact was also guilty of murder.
Section 2 of the 1961 Act created a new offence, that of aiding, abetting, counselling or procuring the suicide or attempted suicide of another, which carries a maximum sentence of 14 years imprisonment. Where the survivor of a suicide pact has killed the other party or procured a third person to do it, the situation is covered by the Homicide Act, and the charge can be manslaughter, but not murder.
But let us return to the unusual situation found in the case cited above, where the deceased actually asked the defendant to kill him, and the defendant complied. There are two other cases I know of on this very point, both of which occurred in South Africa in the 1960s.
Albert Jackson, aged 40, was insured for a substantial sum of money. He was also seriously in debt, and he and his wife Lorna, aged 37, were afraid that a criminal charge of fraud would be brought against them. They decided to commit suicide together. Lorna then realised that if they both died by their own hands, there would be no payout on the insurance policies. She persuaded her husband that the best course of action was for her to arrange to have him murdered, so that she could enjoy the benefit of the policies. To this ingenious plan, Jackson apparently agreed.
Lorna offered two men, Robinson and Esterhuizen, a sum of money to do the deed, but at the last minute, Jackson changed his mind and withdrew his consent to the plan. A few days later, however, while Jackson was sitting in a car with Robinson after the two of them had been drinking, he told Robinson to “go through with it no matter what happens”. At the last moment he changed his mind again, but presumably Robinson thought that this came under the category of “no matter” and shot him.
At the trial, Lorna Jackson, Robinson and Esterhuizen were all sentenced to death, but the case then came before the Appeal Court, where judgement was finally delivered on 8th December 1967. It was held by a majority decision that the fact that Jackson had wanted to die was an extenuating circumstance. The sentences were commuted to 15 years imprisonment for Robinson and 10 years for each of the others. It was also held that once Jackson had withdrawn his consent there was no common purpose between the three defendants, and Lorna and Esterhuizen were only guilty of attempted murder. The minority opinion was that all three were guilty of murder with extenuating circumstances and each should be sentenced to 15 years.
The third case has a number of similarities to the murder of Albert Jackson, though here there was additionally considerable psychological pressure on the defendant.
Dieter von Schauroth, son of a German baron who had settled in South Africa, was born in 1924. He was unsuccessful at school and college, mainly through laziness. Fascinated by gold and jewels, he constantly dreamed up schemes for getting rich quickly. After failing in a number of jobs, he returned home to help run the family estate, and after the death of his father he inherited a share of the land. Dieter liked to pretend to be a wealthy playboy, flashing a huge bankroll which was actually made of paper with a few notes wrapped around the outside.
In 1959 he met 17 year old Colleen Cairns, and a few months later, they were married. Unknown to Colleen, however, Dieter was in grave financial difficulties.
He had been spending money freely, and an extended period of drought was ruining his land. He tided himself over by selling livestock. Eventually, it was all gone, and the farm equipment was sold, too. He now had no source of income, but was still lunching in expensive restaurants, buying jewellery for his wife and gambling at the racetrack. His stockpile of cash and assets was dwindling rapidly. In May 1960 he took out a number of insurance policies, and then in November he took out a further policy for a period of six months. He was now insured for a very substantial sum, but he did not have the resources to pay the premiums when they next fell due.
In January 1961 Dieter met Martiens Roussouw, a 23 year old railway worker who dabbled in small-time diamond deals. Martiens was flattered by the attention of the apparently wealthy aristocrat, and the two men spent an increasing amount of time together, discussing business deals, or in social drinking.
By the end of March, Dieter was in a very serious position. The bank was demanding repayment of a business loan, since he was no longer farming; his land was mortgaged, so it could not be sold, and his policies were about to run out. His only asset was a cheque from his brother, but it was post-dated to 3rd July. The axe was due to fall well before then.
According to Martiens, Dieter often jokingly said to him that he would pay him a sum of money to shoot a man for him. On 22nd March he gave Martiens a post-dated cheque with a covering letter saying that it was for “services rendered”. Martiens’ story is that Dieter promised him the balance if he killed a man for him. They drove to a deserted road where Dieter handed him a loaded gun and asked Martiens to shoot him. Later, Martiens was to say that Dieter was the best friend he ever had.
When the body was identified, the police questioned all of Dieter’s known friends including Martiens, who first told a number of foolish lies, then confessed. The important question at the trial was whether the court would believe his story, and if so, would a request to be killed constitute extenuating circumstances. In the end, the court did not grant Martiens the benefit of the doubt. He was found guilty of murder, and in June 1962, after strenuous efforts to get his sentence commuted, he was hanged.
Turning once more to the Lewis case, it can be seen that if Lewis had pushed his friend off the bridge, as seems probable, then technically, he was guilty of murder. One can only speculate as to why the murder charge was dropped. The only evidence against him was his own confession, given at a time of great distress, and at the trial he claimed not to be able to remember what had happened. Where circumstances are not capable of proof, juries tend to find on the basis of balance of probabilities. Perhaps he was given the benefit of the doubt. His demeanour in court would have been a vital factor in this. One point that might have weighed heavily with a jury, was that it was clear that even if he had assisted a suicide, he had acted altruistically, out of concern for his friend, and not, as in the cases previously discussed, with any hope of reward. The prospect of his re-offending was virtually zero. Under the circumstances, a lenient sentence was, I feel, perfectly just.
Murder By Consent by Henry John May
The Amazing Case of the Baron von Schauroth by Benjamin Bennet
Criminal Law Smith and Hogan (ed)
A Casebook on Criminal Law Elliot and Wood (ed)