Mercy killing not murder

Dr Howard Martin, cleared of murder 5 years ago, admits helping patients die

An elderly British doctor, cleared by a jury in 2005 of hastening the deaths of some patients, has today said in the Telegraph newspaper that he did indeed hasten some patients’ deaths to relieve their suffering. “There’s a point of public discussion I’d like to raise, and the management of people that are dying is not good in our country,” said 75-year old Dr Howard Martin, adding, “I have personal responsibility for that and I used my discretion.”

When asked about shortening the life of two patients without their permission, he responded that there are times when a doctor is called to a patient, perhaps in an emergency. “I had to treat the situation as I find it. My conscience is clear.” There is no suggestion that he acted for any reasons of personal gain or against his own better judgement. “I just promised people that they could die free from pain and with dignity,” he told the paper.

Following the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the ancient right of “double jeopardy” that prevented defendants being tried twice for the same crime has been removed. Durham Constabulary said: “A decision will have to be made on whether there are any new grounds to reopen the investigation and any such decision will be taken following consultation with the Crown Prosecution Service.”

On Friday, the General Medical Council struck Dr Martin off for his “deliberate course of conduct” towards 18 elderly patients who died shortly after he gave them excessively high doses of morphine. The GMC panel did not find him negligent but found him guilty of serious misconduct because of his inappropriate and irresponsible painkiller injections and erased him from the medical register. Dr Martin did not attend, saying he was retired and had no intention of practising medicine again anyway, and so the decision was less important to him than staying home to support his wife, who is in poor health.

Recent CPS guidance has indicated that prosecutions are less likely to take place on assisted suicide that has been motivated solely through compassion. “I don’t believe I’ve killed any patients. I believe I’ve made them comfortable in their hour of need. But I am deemed to be arrogant because I used my discretion,” said Martin. But there could be two reasons why the CPS might decide to look further into the case. One is that their advice so far has mainly related to persons assisting someone whose steadfast wish was to die, not to mercy killings, where a person helps someone die that is suffering and close to death but unable to make a conscious request. The second is that most of the cases brought to the attention of the CPS regarding this have not involved doctors, who owe a particular duty of care under the law.

Exit says, “Without knowing every detail it is hard to make a judgement. But would it not be better if such decisions could be taken in the open? A doctor free to act in accordance with her or his best judgement and compassionately supporting what is believed would be the wishes of the patient? There are situations where a person could die slowly and humiliatingly in agony, or be allowed some decency. Doctors should not have to do what they feel is right and then hide it for five years.”

Resources
CPS Guidance on Assisted Suicide (Crown Prosecution Service)
Admission of hastening death could lead to further investigation (Telegraph)
Dr Howard Martin: timeline (Telegraph)
Police could reopen investigation into Dr Howard Martin (BBC News)
Disgraced GP may face further probe (London Evening Standard)
I helped patients die, says doctor cleared of murder (Guardian)
GP Howard Martin struck off for treatment of elderly (Journal Live)
‘I just promised people they could die free from pain and with dignity’ (Wales Online)
GP admits hastening deaths (video) ITN NEWS
2005 News Report: Morphine doctor cleared of murder
(Sunday Times)
2005: Court hears of allegations faced by murder trial GP (NewsQuest)

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