Mum who survived suicide pact arrested in murder probe as family drove to hospital to collect her
Written by The Newsroom on November 10, 2019
A mum-of-three who survived a suicide pact which killed her husband of 60 years was arrested on suspicion of murder as her family drove to hospital to collect her.
Mavis Eccleston took a cocktail of pills with the aim of dying alongide 81-year-old Dennis, who had terminal bowel cancer.
But her life was saved when relatives – who did not know they had taken the tablets – arrived at their home and they were rushed to hospital.
Now Mrs Eccleston’s daughter, Joy Munns, has revealed in detail how her mum’s grief was compounded by being arrested and later charged with murdering her devoted husband.
The 80-year-old was cleared of murder and manslaughter and, earlier this week, her family shared a powerful picture showing the couple side-by-side in hospital just 20 minutes before Mr Eccleston died in February last year.
Joy said she was told there had been a “change of plan” as she travelled to collect her mum, who had been passed fit to be discharged from hospital.
The pensioner was taken to a cell still wearing her nightdress and slippers and held for 30 hours.
The family hoped their ordeal was over when Mrs Eccleston was later released – but months later she was charged was murder and forced through a three-week trial at Stafford Crown Court.
“We were told on April 1 that mum was going to be charged – we thought it was an April Fools’ joke,” Joy told BirminghamLive.
“We were taken by surprise and absolutely devastated. We had to tell our mum and she broke down and cried.
“We genuinely never thought it would get that far.
“They tried to say dad wouldn’t have known what he was doing – that he wasn’t in a fit state to make that decision himself – but we knew he was.
“As soon as he was diagnosed in 2015, he told us he wanted to go ‘on his terms’.
“He had even asked me to look into taking him to Dignitas but he was too unwell to fly to Switzerland.”
Joy said her mum had told her previously of the couple’s wishes to ‘go together’ after her father was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in 2015.
The couple – who met at a dance one night in January 1958 – had rarely spent a night apart.
And in the early hours of February 19, 2018, Dennis – in agony and distress – instructed Mavis to fetch the tablets he had been ‘stockpiling’.
She penned a long suicide note, before they both took the same cocktail of drugs at their home at Huntington, near Cannock.
“Goodnight darling,” were Mr Eccleston’s last words, to which Mrs Eccleston replied: “Goodnight, God bless.”
Recalling the moment her mother told her of their plan, Joy said: “At first I was angry with mum – I felt like she had so much to live for. But she said to me: ‘I love you all dearly, but I love your dad and I need to be with him’.
“I understood then. I knew they would go ahead with it and I gave her my blessing. All I said to her was that I needed her to say goodbye beforehand, but she didn’t. So when it did happen, it was totally unexpected.
“My sister and niece found them both. Mum was on the floor so we thought she’d had a heart attack.”
“It was only when they couldn’t wake dad and then saw the suicide note that they knew what had happened.
“Mum recovered. The hospital staff asked us if we wanted to lift dad’s ‘do not resuscitate’ order, but we didn’t – we knew he wanted to go.
“We were worried sick when we were told mum would have to go to court.
“And the night before the verdicts were returned, we were told by our barristers to bring enough of mum’s heart medication to last a month – it was then that I realised there was a real chance of her being jailed for life.”
But Mrs Eccleston was cleared of murder and freed – into the arms of her relieved family.
She now lives with daughter Joy at her home in Derby, as the family campaign for a change in the assisted dying law.
Joy added: “Luckily the jury saw sense and justice prevailed with a not guilty verdict.
“Dad would have been devastated if he thought for a minute his wife had to go through this, it would have destroyed him.
“It can’t have been for nothing. Imagine knowing your elderly parents were so alone that this was their only choice?
“Mum should never have been charged with murder and put in a cell for 30 hours.
“Loved ones will be made to suffer in pain every day unless we can change this outdated law of ours.
“The more support we can get, the more noise we can make, it will hopefully start to get to the right people – our politicians – who can make a change.”
Last month, a cross-party group of MPs said the law banning terminally ill people from being helped to end their lives must be reviewed because it ‘may not be working’.
They say the government should examine whether a total ban on assisted dying should be ended.
But anti-euthanasia campaigners have said the ‘sad and troubling’ case does not justify a change in the law.
Dr Gordon Macdonald, Chief Executive of Care Not Killing, said: “This is a deeply sad and troubling case. But it does not justify a change in the law to allow assisted suicide.
“It raises the question of the support the Eccleston’s received as they struggled to cope with the challenges of dealing with a terminal disease.
“It is sad to see this case being used to try and justify a campaign to rip up long held universal protections, by treating those who are terminally ill, disabled, or have chronic conditions differently in law.
“We know that from the handful of places that have made such a change that vulnerable people often feel pressured into ending lives prematurely.
“This is why not a single doctors group or major disability rights organisation supports changing the law, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Physicians, the British Geriatric Society and the Association of Palliative Medicine.”
Family’s full statement outside court
After Mavis was found not-guilty of murder in September, her supportive family made a powerful statement outside court.
They said: “Mavis and Dennis, our mum and dad, were married for 60 years and they were absolutely devoted to each other.
“In February last year, our dad was terminally ill with bowel cancer. He had been extremely ill for some time, he was suffering intense physical pain along with symptoms he found distressing and undignified.
“He had expressed for many months a wish, a wish to end his life in order to avoid more suffering and a prolonged death.
“He was too ill to travel to Switzerland.
“Our mum did not want to live without her husband, the love of her life and so she took an overdose together with him.
“They were found by family members and taken to hospital where our dad died a day later.
“Our parents’ love for each other was so clear that hospital staff pushed their beds together so that mum and dad could hold hands and face each other during dad’s final hours.
“Our family are grateful and relieved that the jury in this case could also recognised our mum’s love for our dad, but since dad’s death our family have been through a terrible ordeal.
“We waited for 18 months for this court case, worrying that having already lost our dad to cancer we might now see our mum imprisoned.
“We do not believe this needed to happen. If there had been an assisted dying law in the UK, our dad would have been able to have the choice to end his suffering with medical support and with his loved ones around him.
“He would not have asked our mum to do something that is considered breaking the law.
“Our dad would have been devastated at the thought of his beloved wife waiting to find out if, at the age of 80, she would face a life sentence in prison simply for respecting his wishes.
“He would have been heartbroken if he had known his wife and family would have had to endure 18 months of extreme anxiety and distress.
“We believe there must be a change in law so that no dying people are forced to suffer or make plans in secret, or ask loved ones to risk prosecution by helping them, or so no other family have to experience the pain our family have had to endure.”
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