Listen: Woman asks helpline if she can smother friend, 81, in Thirsk care home

Heather Davidson
Heather Davidson
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AN ELDERLY devout Christian was smothered to death with a pillow in a care home bed by a friend who defied his wish to be allowed to die from cancer unaided.

Alcoholic Heather Davidson called a counselling service and asked if she would be considered a murderer if she put a pillow over the face of 81-year-old David Paterson at Sowerby House care home in Thirsk. Listen to the phone call

Heather Davidson. Picture: Ross Parry Agency

Heather Davidson. Picture: Ross Parry Agency

Two hours later, after being left alone with the terminally ill widower, she “folded the pillow over his face, pressed down, and killed him by smothering”, Teesside Crown Court was told today.

Davidson, who initially denied any involvement in Mr Paterson’s death before later claiming it was a “mercy killing”, was today given a life sentence with a minimum term of nine years after admitting murder.

The court was told the killing was not the first time she had tried to take a life through suffocation, as she had previously stolen a neighbour’s dog and strangled it, though the dog did not die.

The victim’s family say the 54-year-old defendant stripped their relative, whose wife died last year after 51 years of marriage, of taking away the “last remnants of his dignity”.

David Paterson. Picture: Ross Parry Agency

David Paterson. Picture: Ross Parry Agency

The case is thought to be one of the first in the country where a terminally ill person has had their life ended against their wishes by someone who is not a family member.

Mr Paterson, the court heard, “led a long, happy and fulfilled life” but his condition began to deteriorate after his wife’s death in March 2014 and it was noted a cancer had started to spread.

He was moved to Sowerby House care home in Sowerby near Thirsk, where his condition worsened further and the home’s GP concluded on February 10 this year that “his life was drawing to its natural close”.

Jonathan Sharp, prosecuting, told the court that Mr Paterson “had previously firmly expressed his opposition to any intervention in the dying process, and at the care home he had never asked for anyone to help him end his life”.

Sowerby House care home in Sowerby near Thirsk. Picture: Ross Parry Agency

Sowerby House care home in Sowerby near Thirsk. Picture: Ross Parry Agency

He added: “He was a communicant member of the Church of England and had been a pillar of his local church, St Mary’s in Thirsk, since childhood, attending services there every week and taking an active role in other Church activities.

“As a devout Christian, he had strong ethical objections to euthanasia. He directed a DNR instruction on his medical records be removed. He said it would be God’s decision, and only God’s, when it was time to meet his maker.”

Davidson and Mr Paterson met when she was referred to a support group, where he was a volunteer, for her chronic alcohol abuse. They had both been fellow church-goers at St Mary’s for several years.

The court heard that while Mr Paterson was at the care home Davidson visited two or three times a week, demanding details about his medical condition and complaining, wrongly, that his family never came to see him.

Sowerby House care home in Sowerby near Thirsk. Picture: Ross Parry Agency

Sowerby House care home in Sowerby near Thirsk. Picture: Ross Parry Agency

Mr Sharp said: “To other observers, including staff at the care home and his relatives, Mr Paterson was comfortable, settled and well cared for, but the defendant took a different view of his care, his treatment and what should be done with him.”

On February 11, the day after Mr Paterson’s palliative care started, Davidson arrived at the home and was seen to be “agitated and on edge”.

At around midday she called Macmillan Cancer Care’s counselling service and said he was in a “terrible state”, adding: “I think it would be better if I could just put a pillow over his face”.

During the call, which was played in court, she asked if she would be a “murderer” if she did that and, after being told that she would, suggested no-one would know because no post-mortem would be carried out.

After making the call, Davidson was said to be “particularly troubled by Mr Paterson’s lack of responsiveness to her”.

Mr Sharp said: “She was insistent that he speak or show her some response, indeed at one point she was jumping up and shouting ‘wakey wakey’.

“She had to be asked by the deputy manager of the care home, Kath Henley, to leave the room for a while and to respect the fact that Mr Paterson needed rest.”

Mr Sharp said a fellow church-goer left the room, and it was “then or shortly afterwards that the defendant took hold of the pillow that was under Mr Paterson’s head and pulled it partially out from under him”.

He added: “She then folded the pillow over his face, pressed down, and killed him by smothering.

“It is not possible to say how long the killing took, but the process was not instantaneous. Mr Paterson resisted: that may safely be inferred from his suffering a bruise to the inside of his left eye and an abrasion over his top lip.

“He made a loud gurgling sound, loud enough for a care assistant, Diane Boynton, to hear it in the next room, although she put it down to noise from another resident’s TV.

“Once Mr Paterson had died the defendant left the room and pretended to raise the alarm with two passing staff members, one of whom was Ms Boynton, saying ‘Come and see David, I think he’s just passed away’ or words to that effect.

“She stayed for a moment with Ms Boynton, choosing to tell her that she was a good Christian and she had been praying for Mr Paterson. Ms Boynton was struck by her calmness.”

Death was confirmed at 2.45pm, and the doctor who pronounced Mr Paterson dead noted the bleeding and injuries he sustained.

Davidson said “she and David had a short conversation at 2.15pm, she pretended to imitate him giving a large guttural cough, and said he coughed in that manner a couple more times, then ‘there was a large sigh and he stopped breathing’.”

After Davidson returned home, Maureen Kent, Mr Paterson’s sister’s niece, arrived moments later and the news had to be broken to hear that he had died.

Police realised immediately that the death was suspicious, and the post-mortem confirmed smothering as the cause of death. Davidson was arrested later that day at her home.

During police interviews, she denied murder and said she did not agree with euthanasia, since she was a good church-goer, the court heard.

After police served transcripts of the defendant’s calls to Macmillan, a guilty plea was finally offered to prosecutors on April 30, the last working day before her plea hearing on May 4.

Mr Sharp said: “It is suggested this was a mercy killing. The Crown does not accept that suggestion, at least insofar as the term is generally understood, ie an act done by a close relative to end unbearable suffering.

“Mr Paterson was no relation to the defendant, who had a number of close and caring relatives. Further, he was in no pain or distress. he was moving towards the end of his life peacefully, and it appears he was fully aware of his condition and his imminent mortality, but was firmly opposed to ending his own life or having it prematurely ended.

“The defendant decided that she would act unilaterally, she ignored, or disagreed with, what he wanted and did not consider what his relatives and his carers thought best for him to be relevant.

“Her course of action will, for a few moments at least, have caused the deceased great suffering and distress where none had been necessary.

“It cannot be ignored that this is the second time the defendant has made a choice to take life by suffocation, and so to cause death in what could be a painful and terrifying manner.

“There is also a suggestion by her that in the Macmillan phone call that she was, at least in part, motivated by her own feelings or unhappiness at seeing Mr Paterson in his condition, rather than by his welfare being uppermost in he mind.”

Sentencing Davidson, Recorder of Middlesbrough Simon Bourne-Arton said her decision to end Mr Paterson’s life “was not yours to make”.

He said: “Had Mr Paterson died as his God intended he would have died in February with his loved ones able to say their farewells and without the glare of publicity.”

He added: “This private man did not, in death, have a private ending.”

Mitigating, David Aubrey QC said Davidson regarded the victim as a “good close friend” and “described him on a number of occasions, and to different people, as a lovely, kind person”.

He said: “The fact is that she did not know how close to death he was. The family knew, of course, the medics knew, and there was some surprise he had survived from one day to the next.

“She is now devastated in knowing how close to death he was. Had she realised that she would not have acted in the way she did.”

He added: “We submit this is a mercy killing. It was a genuinely held belief that what she was doing constituted an act of mercy.”

Mr Aubrey said the defendant “suffered from and shows genuine and profound remorse for the dreadful act she has carried out”. He added; “She regrets bitterly what she has done and what she had put the family through.”

Listen to the phone call


‘Mercy killer’ robbed us of chance to grieve