Eccleston family tell of meeting to hear mercy deaths plan - BBC News

Eccleston family tell of meeting to hear mercy deaths plan

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image copyrightJoy Munns
image captionMavis Eccleston's daughter begged her not to take her own life but she said she wanted to be with her husband

Eighty-year-old Mavis Eccleston faced a murder trial when she survived a pact to take her life and the life of her terminally ill husband Dennis. Her children have spoken to the BBC of events that led to her court case and subsequent acquittal.

Kevin Eccleston realised there was something wrong with his dad as they walked to watch their beloved Wolverhampton Wanderers play Leeds in April 2015.

"We were walking to the ground and my dad just said: 'I can't make it'. I had to take him home."

His father, a retired miner, was an extremely proud man - it took a lot for him to admit he was poorly.

When he finally did go to hospital for the debilitating pain he had been experiencing, it was too late.

He was told he had bowel cancer, it was terminal and he had six to 12 months to live.

Kevin Eccleston said he cried all the way home but his father was already thinking ahead.

"He didn't want any treatment whatsoever," he said.

"He just wanted to die his way, in his own time, in his own house. And then my mum decided she was going to go with him."

Dennis Eccleston mentioned in conversation Dignitas, the Swiss organisation founded in 1998 which helps people with terminal and incurable illnesses to end their own lives.

But there was never a plan to travel there. He and his wife wanted to remain in their Staffordshire home.

image copyrightFamily handout
image captionDennis and Mavis Eccleston were married for almost 60 years

Mavis and Dennis Eccleston met as teenagers. Mr Eccleston spotted her on the back of a motorbike and fell in love instantly.

They went on to have three children.

"My mum and dad just idolised each other, they did everything for each other," Kevin Eccleston said.

"It wasn't lovey dovey, it was a proper, old fashioned relationship."

'Finish us off'

Finding out Mr Eccleston was terminally ill was devastating for the family. Mrs Eccleston did not hesitate when her husband suggested they die together.

In fact, they were so matter-of-fact about it, they called a family meeting. All their children were told about the plan.

"They sat us down, explained what they were going to do," their son said.

"They were going to take some tablets, and I was going to find them.

"It would be a Tuesday. Every Tuesday, I took my mum shopping and that's how it was going to happen. I was going to find them once they'd committed suicide.

"My dad said, 'once we've took the tablets and when you find us, if we're still alive, you've got to finish us off with a pillow'."

Their son said his father made him promise he would, but that he never had any intention of carrying it out.

"Every time for the next 12 months that I went down my mum and dad's I thought, 'is this the day I'm going to find them dead?'," he said.

"I prayed every day my dad would die naturally."

image captionJoy Munns and her brother Kevin

Their daughter, Joy Munns, begged her mum to reconsider.

"She just held my hands, she looked me straight in the eyes and said 'I love you, I love you with all of my heart, Joy, but I want to be with your dad'."

It was after one particularly harrowing night at their home in Cannock the couple decided it was time for them to carry out their plan.

Mrs Eccleston said she woke up to what she described as a "wounded animal sound" and found her husband crying on the floor due to the pain he was in and because he had soiled himself.

For the first time, she saw large growths on his body that he had hidden from her.

"She [Mrs Eccleston] got him in the bath, cleaned him down, and crawled back to the chair," Mrs Munns said.

But Mr Eccleston soiled himself a second time, broke down crying and urged his wife not to call an ambulance.

This time, after a few months of him begging her "to go", she agreed.

The house was cleaned so the family would not have to do anything when they were discovered.

The Ecclestons then took the same amount of pills each and lay down in the living room.

But the next thing Mrs Eccleston remembers is waking up in hospital.

image copyrightJoy Munns
image captionMavis and Dennis Eccleston were rushed to hospital after being found at their home in February 2018

They had been found by an unsuspecting family member at their bungalow.

Mr Eccleston was still alive but his life was hanging in the balance.

They were put together in a ward and Mrs Eccleston began talking about the moment they had met.

Their children said a tear ran down her husband's face as she spoke and he eventually died peacefully in the hospital in February 2018.

image copyrightFamily handout
image captionThe Ecclestons "idolised each other", their son Kevin said

The reality of Mr Eccleston's death had only begun sinking in, however, when the couple's children were asked to go into a side room at Stafford's County Hospital with some psychiatric nurses.

"They'd been and had a talk with my mum and [said] she'd admitted to murdering my dad," Mrs Munns said.

"I went round to my mum and said 'what the hell have you said to these nurses?' She said 'what, I've not said anything?'

"Why would she say she murdered my Dad? Dad was on about going to Dignitas - we've all known they were going to commit suicide together."

The police were called and Mrs Munns overheard on an officer's radio her mother was going to be arrested for her father's murder.

"It was like living in a soap that was being over-dramatised. We'd just lost dad and now they were taking mum away to a prison cell.

"She's only 4ft 10in, she's in a nightie, dressing gown and slippers and I was holding on to her, tears streaming down my face begging 'please don't take her'."

image copyrightJoy Munns
image captionThe couple were inseparable - apart from when Mr Eccleston went to watch his beloved Wolves with son Kevin

Mrs Eccleston was charged with Mr Eccleston's murder.

The trial in September 2019, where Mrs Eccleston was accused of giving her husband a potentially lethal dose of prescription medicine without his knowledge, took place at Stafford Crown Court over two weeks.

But the jury believed her when she told them they had planned to die together and she was cleared of all charges.

After the case ended, Mrs Munns called for a change in the law on assisted dying "so that dying people aren't forced to suffer, make plans in secret or ask loved ones to risk prosecution by helping them".

The family continues to campaign with Dignity in Dying, a group which offers help to people who want to choose their own deaths.

However, not everyone agrees with the campaign.

Dr Gordon Macdonald, chief executive of Care Not Killing, an organisation which promotes palliative care and opposes euthanasia, said it was impossible not to be moved by the Ecclestons' story but using them to argue the case of a change in the current laws was wrong.

"The current blanket ban on both [the suicide act and homicide legislation] has been reviewed more than 30 times by parliaments across the UK and the courts," he said.

"Every time, they have rejected introducing a law that would deliberately treat disabled people, the terminally ill and those with chronic conditions differently in law, to the young and healthy."

But the family will continue their campaign.

"That word, 'murder'... that's not a word that belongs in our family," said Mrs Munns.

"You just can't comprehend that your Mum has been charged with murdering your Dad when all it was [was] a love story that tragically went wrong."

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Mum and Dad's Suicide Pact, by Lee Stone, can be heard on BBC Radio WM on Tuesday at 10:00 GMT and then on BBC Sounds.

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