The wife and son of a 94-year-old were arrested on suspicion of assisting his suicide because they watched him deliberately overdose on morphine and sleeping tablets, an inquest heard today.
Frail Ralph Snell was driven to take his own life because of osteoporosis which left him with crippling back pain for two years, and he was so desperate he had previously tried to electrocute himself.
After being prescribed morphine and sleeping tablets by his GP, Mr Snell, of Lymington, New Forest, Hampshire, told his son Richard, 68, and wife Molly, 89, that he wanted to kill himself and the pair ‘morally supported him’.
Today Richard told an inquest he had to open the bottle of morphine for his father as ‘he was not strong enough’ and even ‘bought him some chocolate cake and whisky to have with the tablets as a bit of a treat’.
After being prescribed morphine and sleeping tablets by his GP, Mr Snell told his son Richard (pictured arriving at court today with his wife Alison) and wife Molly that he wanted to kill himself and the pair ‘morally supported him’
Richard and Mrs Snell, now 90, then watched as ‘determined’ Mr Snell drank the 100ml bottle and swallowed 24 tablets in his armchair at home on January 28 this year.
Richard dialled 111 to report Mr Snell’s death and a doctor was sent to their house who told them he had to call police so officers could ‘ask them some questions’.
Mrs Snell and Richard were then arrested by Hampshire Constabulary on suspicion of assisting Mr Snell’s suicide.
Winchester Coroner’s Court, Hampshire, heard Mr Snell, a retired legal shorthand writer, had painful osteoporosis on the right side of his spine which caused insomnia.
He had previously been treated in hospital for back pains and became so desperate he tried to electrocute himself with a mobile phone charger.
Speaking at the inquest today, Richard, from Somerset, said on January 27 this year his father once again told him he wanted to end his life.
Richard said: ‘I said to him we should visit his GP and see what advice he could give him.
‘His GP Ian Murray was the only medical professional that he trusted.
‘The next day we went to his GP, and as expected, Dr Murray said he could not assist him with his suicide because it is highly unethical and illegal.
‘However he did prescribe OraMorph to ease the pain, and Zopiclone to help with his sleeping.
‘That afternoon Ralph said he wanted to initiate the suicide process.
‘Molly and I supported his decision.
‘He took some travel sickness tablets because he had read it would stop him from vomiting the morphine.
‘He then went to sleep for two hours while he waited for the travel sickness tablets to digest.
‘He kept waking up every 30 minutes to ask if it was time yet.
‘The time eventually passed and he took 24 sleeping tablets and swallowed 100ml of morphine.
‘He was very quiet while he was doing it, he was determined to do it.
‘Earlier that afternoon I had bought him some chocolate cake and whisky to have with the tablets, as a bit of a treat.
‘We sat with him as moral support while he did it.
‘I opened the bottle of morphine for him as he was not strong enough.’
Richard told the inquest the process took so long that his mother became tired during the suicide and went to sleep in her bedroom.
Half an hour later, at 8pm, Mr Snell peacefully passed away in his armchair.
Richard added: ‘I went and woke up Molly and told her he had done it.
‘We sat calmly with him, I didn’t know how to feel.
‘We didn’t know whether to call a doctor to come and confirm the death or to wait until the morning.
‘We called 111 for advice and they sent an out-of-hours doctor to the house.
‘The doctor called the police because they didn’t know what to do.
‘He told us he had to call the police to help deal with the body and to ask us some questions.
‘When they arrived they asked us about Ralph’s death and our involvement, and they arrested me and Molly on suspicion of assisted suicide.’
PC Stephen MacDonald told the inquest: ‘We were called after the doctor reported a suspicious death in Lymington.
‘I arrived at the house and the out-of-hours doctor was waiting for me outside.
‘I went into the house and Robert and Molly were sitting in the lounge.
‘They appeared to be very calm. Ralph was sat in an armchair.
‘Richard explained to me that he had been to see Ralph’s GP earlier in the day and he had overdosed on his prescribed medication.
‘He told me that both he and Molly were present during the suicide, so myself and my colleague arrested them on suspicion of assisting a suicide.’
Detective Constable Kayleigh Rush told the inquest that the pair were released without charge by the police.
She said: ‘They did not themselves initiate the suicide, but they were present when it happened.
The law on assisted suicide in the UK
In England and Wales under the Suicide Act 1961 and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1966 it is a crime to encourage or assist suicide.
This crime carries a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment.
If someone provides encouragement or assistance, that is a crime, even if the person ends their life overseas in a country where assisted dying is legal.
There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a competent adult to die could lead to a prosecution for culpable homicide.
‘They were both interviewed at Southampton police station that night.’
Richard’s partner, Alison Smith, told the hearing Mr Snell had previously rejected treatment in hospital. She said: ‘Ralph was always very wary of medical staff, he didn’t trust them.
‘While he was in hospital he was rejecting blood tests and medication.
‘He was discharged from hospital after a week and they gave him some pain killers to continue to relieve the pain, but he stopped taking them immediately and the pain returned.
‘He tried to commit suicide by electrocuting himself with a mobile phone charger.
‘He called Richard and told him that he wanted to end his life.’
Senior Coroner Grahame Short recorded a verdict of suicide.
Addressing Richard, he said: ‘I do understand your decision to support Ralph with his suicide.
‘There is no doubt Ralph put both you and Molly in an extremely difficult decision.
‘Ralph overdosed swallowing a bottle of morphine, and taking 24 sleeping tablets.
‘He died peacefully at his home with his wife and son by his side.
‘I would like to take this opportunity to pass on my sympathies to the family.’
- For confidential support call the Samaritans on 116123 or visit a local Samaritans branch, see samaritans.org for details.