HALIFAX – The case of Dr. Nancy Morrison, a Halifax intensive care physician and Dalhousie Medical School professor charged with the first degree murder of Moncton resident Paul Mills, has shifted the debate about euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide onto the front burner in Atlantic Canada.

Mr. Mills, 65, a throat cancer patient at the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre, died Nov. 10, 1996. Dr. Morrison, 42, was arrested at the hospital May 6, 1997 and charged with first-degree murder after police were contacted by another physician.

Unknown wishes

Mr. Mills’s family expressed shock upon learning that he had allegedly died from unnatural causes. His widow, Dorice Lastowski, told reporters that her husband had never indicated a desire to die, although his family had agreed to gradual removal of life support devices to “let nature take its course.”

“Looks like Morrison will get off with a suspended sentence,” says Ed LaPierre, editor of the The Ottawa Times Atlantic edition. “Oh to be a member of the elite, protected by the elite, free to be what one pleases, up to and including playing God.”

There is plenty of probable cause to assume that Mr. LaPierre’s prediction is correct. The Nova Scotia judiciary has a historical bias toward leniency in mercy-killing cases.

In 1994 a Halifax common-law couple, Cheryl Myers and Michael Power, received a suspended sentence from Supreme Court Judge Felix Caccione for suffocating Ms. Myers’ dying father, Layton Myers, 65, with a pillow.

Judge Caccione ruled that Myers and Power had “acted out of compassion, mercy, and love.”
Cheryl Myers’s two brothers disagreed, telling reporters that “We’re just sick,” following the verdict.

In 1995, Halifax resident Mary Jane Fogarty received a suspended sentence, three years’ probation, and was ordered by Justice John Davidson to perform 300 hours of community service for assisting in the suicide of her best friend Brenda Barnes, a diabetic suffering from depression.

Dr. Morrison was scheduled to learn Feb. 27 if she will be tried for manslaughter, murder, a lesser charge, or be discharged in the death of Mr. Mills. At the end of the preliminary inquiry into a charge of first-degree murder on Feb. 18, Judge Hughes Randall suggested the possibility of applying a lesser charge under Section 245 of the Canadian Criminal Code, “administering a noxious substance,” which carries a maximum penalty of 14 years, with no minimum jail time.

Because of a defence request at the beginning of the hearing, there is a ban on publication of evidence. However, one of Morrison’s lawyers, Brian Greenspan, has stated that his client didn’t cause Mr. Mills to die.

Lesser charge

Dr. Morrison was initially charged with first-degree murder, but the Crown subsequently reduced the charge to manslaughter. There is no minimum sentence for manslaughter. However, Judge Randall noted last fall that the final decision is his.

“It is left open to the court to commit the accused on first-degree murder, second-degree murder, or manslaughter,” he told lawyers, saying that he has thrown out charges before.

(Charles Moore contributes to The Interim from Sherbrooke, N.B.)