Sean Davison did not know how the day would end. It was supposed to be a routine pre-trial hearing in his triple premeditated murder case. He had expected to arrive at the high court in Cape Town before 10am on Wednesday. He thought he’d make a quick court appearance, make a short announcement to media on the steps of the court and be home by lunchtime. Maybe he would have gone for a walk on the mountain.
But, by 10am on Wednesday, Davison was convicted of murder. He had pleaded guilty to three counts of murder for helping three people end their lives.
Anrich Burger, Justin Varian and Richard Holland had asked Davison for help in committing suicide.
Burger, a medical doctor, had been left quadriplegic after a motor accident in 2005 and had suffered severe neuropathic pain in his legs. On several occasions, he had expressed his wish to die.
In 2010, Varian had a stroke, and a year later he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Davison’s plea agreement with the state said that, from 2012 until his death in 2015, Varian suffered tremendously. He had difficulty eating, swallowing and sleeping. He was also unable to move without assistance.
Holland had been left brain-damaged and unable to move after a 2012 bicycle accident in Dubai. He had to communicate through eye movements. He could not feed himself and was kept nourished through a tube to his stomach.
In his plea agreement, Davison confessed he helped end these lives with either a lethal drug overdose or by asphyxiation.
He was sentenced to an effective three years of house arrest.
It will be his second time serving a sentence for assisted suicide. In New Zealand, in 2011, he was sentenced to five months of house arrest after helping his 85-year-old terminally ill mother die with a dose of morphine.
On his return to South Africa, he was supported by his employer, the University of the Western Cape (where he works as a professor in biotechnology), and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, a notable supporter of assisted dying.
Davison has since then become South Africa’s leading advocate for helping terminally ill people die at a time of their choosing and with dignity.
After the case, his friend, Lee Last, who is also an executive of the lobby group Dignity South Africa, which Davison is a member of, said: “He’s quite relieved. But he’s disappointed in having to plead guilty [to] something he didn’t see as a crime.”
Since being convicted, Davison has not been allowed to conduct media interviews. Last said the father of three did not see what he was doing as wrong. “It was a crime of compassion … He’s being humbled by the plea he has taken and he’s grateful for the opportunity.”
She said the families of Burger, Varian and Holland assisted in getting what could be seen as a lenient sentence for Davison. The families made representations to the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) for Davison not to be put behind bars. They all confirmed he was carrying out the wishes of their loved ones.
This was confirmed by the NPA, who said that consultations with the families were mitigating factors when drafting the plea agreement.
NPA spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila said: “During the course of the case the families of the deceased … indicated that they did not want him to be arrested or to be prosecuted.”
But the NPA has warned that despite this punishment of house arrest, it doesn’t mean it has gone soft on assisted suicide cases.
“Every case will be determined on its merit. So what happened here is not a blank cheque to say anyone can do such a thing. Anyone who commits such a crime will be prosecuted and each case will be viewed differently,” Ntabazalila said.
Last said: “In the last week, I received five requests from people for help to die. Even though they know Sean was facing a life sentence, they still write and ask for help to die. They are so desperate. And they don’t even care what the repercussions are for those who assist them. They’re so desperate. And I know that all of the people who Sean helped to die would have been horrified if they knew that he was prosecuted for helping them.”
She said Davison’s case has again brought the issue of assisted dying to the fore. “I hope it helps people realise that this is why we need a law change. If the law was in place there wouldn’t be a need for a Sean. We need a law that protects us; that protects doctors and the patients. And without that, you’re going to have cases where the law is broken.”
She added that Dignity South Africa is supporting a test case in the high court in Pretoria.
Seventy-year-old Dieter Harck, who is suffering from motor neurone disease, has asked the court to be allowed to be legally assisted with dying at the appropriate time. Last said they’re hoping a positive court outcome will compel Parliament to create laws that aid assisted dying.
“We believe that the Harck case will end up in the Constitutional Court. So we’ll continue to support that as amicus in that case. And we’ll keep on chipping away. We’ve got the rest of our lives,” she said.