Three years ago almost to the day, Kay Gilderdale helped her daughter to die. She didn’t want to, but her daughter had finally tired of her suffering, and so this mother did the most selfless act of love for her child that she could.
Against all her instincts, Kay helped to end her beloved daughter’s life. I met Kay in the custody suite at Brighton police station where she had been taken following her arrest within hours of her daughter Lynette’s death.
The solicitors’ I work for had been asked to provide a lawyer to represent Kay during the interviews and so I went to the police station to meet with her.
Kay had cared for Lynn for the 17 years since her daughter had contracted chronic fatigue syndrome, better known as ME. Lynn had been in constant pain since being diagnosed with a severe form of the neurological condition at the age of 14. I found a broken, exhausted but extremely dignified woman who seemed not unsurprisingly to be in a state of shock. It seemed outrageous to me that she should be in a cell, in a custody block, having just suffered the unimaginable pain of losing her daughter, and not at home with her family.
I took Kay to an interview room to speak with her privately about what had happened, so I could advise her as to what she should say during her interview. She had been arrested for murder and it was necessary for me to know the full details of how Lynnette had died, so that I could advise her whether she was guilty or the offence or not.
Kay told me how Lynn had summoned her to her bedroom by tapping on the dividing wall, and told her that she had decided to end her life. She had already diverted her slow drip morphine feed directly into a vein. Kay tried to talk her out of it but she was determined, saying that there would ‘never be a right time’ and that she could no longer tolerate the pain.
Eventually Kay was persuaded to give her daughter two more syringes of morphine which Lynn self-administered. This was in the early hours of December the 3rd 2008, and Kay told me how she had sat with her daughter as she drifted in and out of consciousness as a result of her high tolerance for the morphine which she had taken over the course of her illness preventing her from dying.
Kay knew that beyond anything else in this world her daughter did not want to go back to hospital. Lynn had suffered horribly in hospital (for example, she suffered a punctured lung due to a misplaced Hickman line and was sexually assaulted by a doctor). Lynn’s wishes were very clear. She had even drawn up a legal document to be placed on her hospital records declaring her wish not to be resuscitated. Kay stayed with her daughter for 30 hours, until she finally fell asleep on the morning of December 4th.
The words that Kay spoke to her GP, called to the house immediately after Lynn’s death were to form the basis of the attempted murder charge which followed.
Kay pleaded guilty to an alternative charge of ‘assisting a suicide’, but the Crown refused to accept that she was guilty to anything less than attempting to kill her daughter in the early hours of that morning.
Over the course of the next year whilst I prepared Kay’s defence case, I came to know her and her family very well. I also came to know Lynn through Kay. I now have a daughter the same age as Lynn when she became ill. I felt sad that we enjoy the normal day-to- day experiences when they had suffered so much.
The Director of Public Prosecution’s Keir Starmer’s guidelines regarding the prosecution of persons for assisting suicides were released at this time, and Kay’s situation ticked every reason for not doing so, but still the prosecution continued. Finally, after a trial at Lewes Crown Court, Kay was found not guilty of attempting to murder her daughter. Mr. Justice Bean said: ‘I do not normally comment on the verdicts of juries, but in this case their decision, if I may say, so shows that common sense decency and humanity, which makes jury trials so important in a case of this kind.’
I was reminded again of Kay’s case (although it is never very far from my mind) when I saw media reports regarding calls from some quarters for the mandatory sentence of life for murder to be reviewed. You may wonder how this fits with Kay’s case. Kay was charged with attempted murder (which does not carry a mandatory sentence) as opposed to murder, due to a technical evidential point regarding the cause of Lynn’s death. If the medical evidence had been clearer, she may well have been charged with murder. If she had been convicted, the terrible, heartwrenchingly awful situation she found herself in, against her wishes, could have lead to her receiving a life sentence.
Judges should be given the discretion to sentence the defendants coming before them based on the circumstances of each individual case. I trust their judgement, common sense, decency and humanity to do so.
Kim Evans has spent 31 years working at the sharp end of the criminal justice system - the last ten years in the cells of East Sussex police stations defending people in custody. ‘I'd guesstimate that 90% of my clients have a personality disorder, mental health issues, and, or, serious substance addiction be it drugs or alcohol,’ she says. Kim started her career at the Metropolitan Police as a uniformed officer in 1979.