The deeply upsetting case of a man who killed his terminally ill wife made headlines at the weekend. Graham Mansfield slit his wife Dyanne’s throat in their back garden before turning the knife on himself and ingesting drugs. He later called the police to turn himself in. Last week, he was told he will avoid jail, with a highly lenient manslaughter charge – a two year suspended sentence. The judge presiding over the case said Mansfield had “acted with love” and “compassion”. Mansfield said he was ‘elated’ with the result.
It’s a harrowing example of what is often described as “mercy killing”. At least, that’s how the media has presented it. News coverage has typically focused on the sympathetic comments of the judge, and platformed campaigners who want to legalise assisted suicide, including Mansifeld himself. In pursuing this narrative, commentators are missing the point and giving assent to the regressive idea that people with suicidal intentions should be helped to act on their despair.
Disability rights group Not Dead Yet puts it well: “The Mansfield case should never be a reason to change the law on assisted suicide in the UK. This was not an act of compassion, it was an irrational and horrific response of someone who desperately needed mental health support. The current system works as an effective deterrent to some who may want to end the life of a vulnerable person for reasons which are currently unlawful. It is crucial to protect and support all people in that situation”.
In concentrating on ‘assisted dying’, the media is also overlooking deeply troubling aspects of the case. The Mansfield case concluded in just four days. That’s highly unusual. And it involved extreme, emotive rhetoric. Even members of the prosecution seemed to be sympathising with the killer during court proceedings. As Andrew Bardsley, a reporter for the Manchester Evening News, noted: “At times, the prosecution seemed like it was also a case for the defence”.
“Commentators are missing the point”
Guardian journalist Helen Pidd similarly said: “In a sentencing hearing prosecution barristers tend to argue for harsh sentences. This one felt like a plea for leniency, with David Temkin QC accepting Graham Mansfield was motivated ‘by love’. No one wanted to see him go to prison for his desperate act.” It seems the final result, reached in a matter of days, was something of a foregone conclusion. This raises a question: was proper, dispassionate scrutiny truly applied here?
Others have remarked that a note found at the scene of this horrific crime was written by Mr Mansfield. There was no recorded consent from Dyanne Mansfield herself. She may have provided consent up to the last moment, she may have not. That all depends on Graham Mansfield’s testimony. The jury decided it was “more likely than not” there was a suicide pact between the pair, and that Mr Mansfield made a genuine attempt to take his own life. That hardly sounds definitive.
It’s deeply troubling to think that the brutal nature of Dyanne Mansfield’s death was overlooked. Graham Mansfield slit his vulnerable wife’s throat and let her bleed to death. Three knives and a hammer were found close to her body. And the judge implied that Mr Mansfield had meant well: “The use of a knife was to effect the agreed killing more quickly, rather than to indicate high culpability…I am entirely satisfied that you acted out of love for your wife”, Mr Justice Goose said.
There are undeniably difficult cases, and justice must at times be tempered with mercy. But I’m alarmed that a UK court should so quickly, and so absolutely excuse a man who violently killed his wife. He claimed he was ‘forced’ to do it. Nobody is forced to kill a loved one. He said she was suffering. There are ways to help a person in physical or emotional anguish. Graham Mansfield has a conscience and it was telling him not to do it – he said so himself. I don’t think it speaks well of our courts that such a horrific killing was excused, and defined as ‘love’.
“Nobody is forced to kill a loved one”
Our culture has become comfortable with the idea that evil acts can be excused depending on the circumstances. According to ‘situation ethics’, a man who kills his wife hasn’t really acted reprehensibly if she asked to be killed, or had a terminal condition. In these scenarios, it’s a “loving” act. Rules can be suspended. This approach denies the idea of an absolute moral standard. It’s also highly unpredictable. What’s “cruel” and punishable today could be deemed “loving” and acceptable tomorrow. The meaning of “love” is changeable.
You also have to ask what message the approach typified by the Mansfield judgment sends to society at large? Here is an example of a man killing his wife, with no real legal consequences. In fact, he has been commended. Others in hard circumstances may conclude: ‘If he did it, so can I’. It must be said, too, that there are cruel people in our country who stand to gain from the death of a vulnerable person in their care, and are capable of killing. Such individuals might feel emboldened by the Mansfield case. ‘He got off with it, so will I’. It’s chilling to think about.
The extreme leniency of this ruling, and the speed at which it was handed down, also raises the question of prejudice. Courts are meant to be free from bias, but it’s impossible to deny the decision was made in the context of a live political debate about assisted suicide legislation. Judges, jurors, and lawyers don’t operate in a vacuum. They are reading the papers and watching news bulletins full of emotional appeals for a law that allows ‘assisted deaths’ for the terminally ill. To what extent did this play a part?
This may be a minority opinion but I’m deeply uncomfortable with the outcome of this case: its astonishing leniency, the fawning media commentators condoning what was done in the name of “love”. It undermines the moral truth that killing is heinous, whether or not the perpetrator thought it necessary. And it sends a dangerous, enabling message to people in society capable of emulating awful acts. None of this leaves us in a better place.