Shropshire Star

Dignity in death or murder? Story of loving wife who found herself in the dock for killing husband

Staring at the accused, it was hard – in reality, impossible – to marry Mavis Eccleston, grey haired, dogged by heart problems and reliant on a walking stick, with the murder charge she faced.

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Mavis Eccleston leaving Stafford Crown Court in 2019, where she was on trial accused of murdering her husband Dennis in a "mercy killing" after his bowel cancer was diagnosed as terminal

Close your eyes in the Stafford courtroom, and you could envisage the 80-year-old perhaps sending cold callers packing with a flea in their ear, perhaps scolding a neighbour’s cat for flattening her geraniums.

But wantonly taking a life…?

Dennis and Mavis Eccleston

But, then, the alleged crime Mavis, from the close-knit former mining village of Huntington, south Staffordshire, committed was no ordinary case. It was an act of mercy that swamped petrol on the burning debate over the rights and wrongs of mercy killing and assisting a loved one to carry out their wish to end their suffering.

Close to five years after Mavis was acquitted of murdering her husband Dennis, a former pit worker in the final, undignified death throes of bowel cancer, and an alternative manslaughter charge, the story still fuels the flames of that debate.

They leap higher than before. The heat from them is more intense. It has gained powerful voices on both sides.

Dame Esther Rantzen

Those flying the “Dignity in Dying” banner include former presenter Esther Rantzen, battling stage four cancer. She has gained over 100,000 signatures on a petition to have the thorny issue debated in Parliament and says: “If I reach the stage where my life is unendurable, I would love my nearest and dearest to have the memory of my death being one I chose, peaceful and without pain.”

Actress and disability rights campaigner Liz Carr has voiced her opposition in BBC documentary “Better Off Dead?”. The Silent Witness star believes a law change could place pressure on the terminally ill to take their own lives. Some may make the ultimate decision while engulfed in a thick mental fog of depression.

The rights of the Isle of Man’s terminally ill residents to be helped to die has been fought over in its Parliament, Tynwald.

Every debate and discussion, even the tub-thumping and tantrums will be tinged by the Eccleston tragedy.

The couple in hospital together after they took an overdose

Mavis, still with us and cared for by her daughter, is a silent martyr for those who believe in assisted dying. She and her husband of 60 years revealed suicide pact plans to their shocked family, swallowed prescription pills together and were found, by a relative, unconscious in their neat Raven Close bungalow on February, 19, 2018.

Mavis survived, 81-year-old Dennis did not.

In her dotage, the widow spent 30 hours in a police cell and spent 18 tormented months waiting for her two-week trial.

She had, her supporters said, been demonised by the state because of devotion.

Mavis Eccleston, with daughter Joy and son Kevin, outside Stafford Crown Court after she was cleared of the murder and manslaughter of her husband Dennis

Mavis first gasped, then wept when the not guilty verdicts were announced - and those tears continue to help turn the wheels for campaign group Dignity in Dying.