A 47-year-old Waterford man has been given a suspended three-year sentence for attempting to murder his elderly mother in an attempted mercy killing, after the judge ruled that his motivation was entirely compassionate.
Veronica (Vera) Vollrath (83) was pronounced dead on January 9, 2012 at Killure Bridge Nursing Home, Killure, Co Waterford.
Her death was expected but her son admitted holding a pillow over her face while keeping vigil by her death bed, and the Austrian resident was charged with her murder.
Gerald Vollrath of Tramore Heights, Tramore pleaded not guilty to her murder, but the murder charge against him was dropped in December, and he pleaded guilty to attempted murder instead.
The Central Criminal Court was told last week that this was because pathological exams had found no sign of suffocation and that it could not be said with absolute certainty that she was not already dead.
Mrs Vollrath had suffered a severe stroke, had Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart and kidney problems and was receiving end-of-life care.
The aviation worker was keeping vigil by her side on the night of January 8th when he put a pillow over her face and held it there for up to two minutes. Staff did not suspect anything other than a natural death.
Mr Vollrath revealed what he had done later that morning. He told gardai that his mother previously indicated that she would not like to be helpless in the situation in which she was.
The court heard that the gardai’s view was that Mr Vollrath’s only concern was his mother’s suffering.
Mr Justice Paul Carney said last week that this was the first time he had encountered anything of this nature in 50 years and adjourned sentencing.
Before passing sentence yesterday (Monday), he described the case as distressing.
He said that mercy killing was a concept totally unknown to our law. He then quoted from an English case, where a mother had taken the life of her severely disabled son with the intention of ending his suffering.
“The law of murder does not distinguish between murder committed for malevolent reasons and murder motivated by familial love… Mercy killing is murder,” he said, quoting a judicial decision in that case.
“Even a life lived at the extremes of disability is not one jot less precious than the life of an able-bodied person,” it continued.
“Until Parliament decides otherwise, the law recognises a distinction between the withdrawal of treatment supporting life, which, subject to stringent conditions, may be lawful, and the active termination of life, which is unlawful,” concluded the quotation.
Mr Justice Carney noted that the mother in that case had been captured by the mandatory life sentence.
He said that in Mr Vollrath’s case, he could be facing life imprisonment were it not for the prosecution’s inability to prove that Mrs Vollrath was still alive when he pressed a pillow to her face.
He noted that the DPP had accepted his plea to attempted murder and said the available penalties ranged from suspended sentence to life imprisonment.
He took a number of mitigating factors into account when deciding on a sentence.
“The motivation was entirely compassionate and not at all malevolent,” he said.
He also noted Mrs Vollrath’s family’s desire for compassion, Mr Vollrath’s early plea and genuine remorse, his work history, employer support, lack of previous convictions and the support of his wife and family.
He imposed a three-year sentence, but suspended it on Mr Vollrath entering into a €1,000 bond to be of good behaviour for three years.
Mr Vollrath, who had his eyes closed throughout the sentencing, winked at family members on hearing the outcome.
Outside the courtroom, he embraced family members as well as members of the gardai.
Flanked by his family, he paused outside the courthouse while his solicitor, Ken Cunningham, spoke on his behalf.
He thanked all of those who had offered their support and encouragement over the past two ‘very difficult’ years. He thanked his legal team for their expertise, dedication, and commitment to bringing the matter to a conclusion.
He thanked his family for the unwavering support, sympathy, compassion and love they had shown him through ‘this very difficult time for all concerned’.
He asked the media to respect the privacy of his family and to allow them to rebuild their lives.