Susan Austen found not guilty of assisted suicide

 usan Austen, who's charged with aiding the suicide of 77-year-old Annemarie Treadwell.
usan Austen, who's charged with aiding the suicide of 77-year-old Annemarie Treadwell. Photo credit: Newshub

A jury has found euthanasia activist Susan Austen not guilty of aiding the suicide of 77-year-old Annemarie Treadwell.

It also found Austen not guilty on one charge of importing a Class C drug, but guilty on two charges of the same offence.

The verdict was returned on Friday afternoon in the Wellington High Court.

Austen is the Wellington coordinator of EXIT International, a pro-assisted dying group that Mrs Treadwell was a member of.

Mrs Treadwell was found dead in her bed at her Kilbirnie rest home on June 6, 2016.

Initially, police didn't suspect suicide, but an autopsy was later ordered after a suicide note was found in a drawer in Treadwell's room.

The autopsy found the cause of death to be pentobarbitone toxicity.

Pentobarbitone is a Class C drug under New Zealand law, although veterinarians can lawfully use it to euthanise animals.

The Crown alleged Ms Austen imported pentobarbitone, then provided it to Mrs Treadwell, who used it to commit suicide.

Ms Austen's lawyer, Donald Stevens, argued she was only trying to provide "comfort" to Mrs Treadwell, had no knowledge of Mrs Treadwell's plan to kill herself and had no intention of helping Mrs Treadwell kill herself.

But The Crown said evidence proved Ms Austen knew of Mrs Treadwell's plans and that her emails revealed she made great efforts to source the powerful sedative from "trusted" suppliers in Mexico and China.

Stevens did not dispute pentobarbitone was ordered, but told the court there was no evidence proving any of the importations were successful.

During the two-week trial at the Wellington High Court, jurors heard evidence from the 77-year-old's former GP, who said her overall health was "in quite good condition".

Mrs Treadwell was reasonably active and enjoyed walking, but found the last year of her life "a struggle", according to her daughter.

Mrs Treadwell did not want to be burden on her family and did not want to live out her last days in care.

She also suffered chronic pain due to arthritis and had a history of depression, taking antidepressants at the time of her death.

To prove the charge of aiding suicide, the Crown had to prove Ms Austenhad aided Mrs Treadwell's suicide, that she knew Mrs Treadwell was going to commit suicide and that she knew her help would lead to her suicide.

Crown lawyer Kate Feltham argued Ms Austen aided Mrs Treadwell by providing her with an email address that could be used to obtain pentobarbitone from overseas.

The Crown says it was the same email address Mrs Treadwell used in an unsuccessful attempt to order a package of pentobarbitone.

In her summing up, Justice Thomas noted the Crown's case was circumstantial, as it had no evidence of Austen handing pentobarbitone to Treadwell.

But the Crown played to the jury bugged audio from EXIT International meetings run by Ms Austen, in which she took questions on pentobarbitone from members and described ways of purchasing it from overseas.

Mrs Treadwell was an active member of the group, with her daughter giving evidence that her mother wanted to have control over "how and when to leave this world".

Mrs Treadwell's own handwritten diary played a key role in both the Crown and defence arguments, with the book documenting in detail Mrs Treadwell's final months, her decision to kill herself and dealings with Ms Austen.

During her summing up on Friday morning, Justice Thomas mentioned the Assisted Dying Members Bill that passed its first reading at Parliament last year.

Justice Thomas said the jurors' own views on both assisted dying and the Bill before Parliament were "irrelevant" to Ms Austen's case.

Ms Austen has been supported throughout the trial by fellow EXIT International members, who had held placards outside the courthouse and packed the public gallery.

EXIT International's controversial director, Australian Dr Philip Nitschke, has also been present in court.