On February 23, a jury acquitted Susan Austen, 67, of assisting in the death of Annemarie Treadwell. The verdict came after two weeks of trial, and the hearing of testimony from over 30 witnesses from the Crown alone. Austen was, however, found guilty of two charges of importing pentobarbitone, a drug frequently used for euthanasia.
The proceedings seemed as much about pitting New Zealand’s policy debate over medical assistance in dying on trial as Austen, with Justice Susan Thomas admonishing the jury early in the proceedings that the action was with respect to the law as it currently exists rather than what anyone’s notions were as to what the law ought to be. The ruling has euthanasia activists in the country breathing a sigh of relief. Pro-euthanasia lobby group, Exit International’s founder Dr. Philip Nitschke was on hand to the media outside the High of New Zealand in Wellington, stating, “thank goodness for this, common sense has prevailed and the jury has done the right thing.” He had also stated earlier that “there needs to be a change to laws which try to say that anyone that gives this sort of information and allows a rational person to take that choice can find themselves sitting for two weeks going through this ordeal,” a reference to New Zealand’s Parliament taking on the issue, with a bill on Medical Assistance in Dying anticipated to be presented to before parliament this fall. At the time of Treadwell’s death, Austen was the Wellington Chapter President of Exit, and active campaigner for the adoption of new legislation.
The law is expected to be largely similar to legislation adopted in other countries, including Canada. While it is not expected the law would relieve criminal liability in cases like Austen’s (who is not a medical professional), it would likely have provided a legal avenue for Treadwell to have obtained such assistance in from a medical professional.