Why right-to-die activist Sean Davison is going home and not to jail for murder

Professor Sean Davison was placed under house arrest for three years for the murders of three bedridden or gravely ill people at their request.

This after Western Cape Judge President John Hlophe accepted a plea and sentencing agreement, which noted that there were compelling circumstances to deviate from sending the 58-year-old married dad of three to jail. 

So instead of going to jail, Davison left the court, his wife on one side, and his young son, holding an Enid Blyton book, on the other.

He has also been ordered to do community service.

Shortly after his arrest last year, Davison's legal team told the court he did not think he had done anything wrong when he helped the three die at their request. However, prosecutor Megan Blows insisted it was premediated murder and pressed on with the charges.

The agreement that Davison plead guilty to three murders was reached on Tuesday and accepted by Hlophe on Wednesday. On Thursday, he must present himself for the start of the sentencing agreement. It almost fell apart at the eleventh hour on Tuesday night when one of the relatives of those who died changed her mind.

Davison did not speak to the media on Wednesday, but checked on his wife and son, spreading his arms in a protective circle around them, as they walked the media gauntlet outside the court.

Here are 6 facts about his plea agreement:

1. Davison pleaded guilty to the three counts of murder in terms of Section 51(1) and Part 1 of Schedule 2 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act No. 105 of 1997.

2. They were noted as "very serious" offences, but there were also compelling circumstances to deviate from the 15 years minimum the law prescribes for murder. The court noted that he admitted what he did and did not put the families through the trauma of being witnesses.

"His plea of guilty brought closure to the family of the deceased," said the settlement. "The accused is remorseful for his actions."

3. In addition to the eight years being wholly suspended, he will be under house arrest for a full three years of correctional supervision except for work, religious activity and "bona fide" visits to a medical practitioner. He cannot leave the magisterial district where he lives and works without permission from his correctional supervision officer. 

4. He must do 16 hours' community service a month; he may not use any alcohol or drugs unless prescribed by a medical practitioner and may not go to certain places such as clubs or casinos. He was declared unfit for a firearm and must get written permission if he changes his residential address. 

5. He is not allowed to be convicted of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, attempted murder or a crime involving violence in which there is a sentence without the option of a fine. 

6. National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) spokesperson Eric Ntabazalila said that after all the families were consulted, one relative changed her mind at the eleventh hour on Tuesday. The NPA decided to leave the matter in the hands of the judge and was satisfied with the outcome.

The charges

1. Doctor Anrich Burger became a quadriplegic after a car crash in 2005, was totally dependent on others and could not even take medication by himself. He wanted to go to Switzerland for assisted dying but could not afford it. By agreement, Davison gave him a "lethal concoction" at a hotel room in Granger Bay on November 2, 2013, and when he died, called his assistant, fiancée and mother to tell them he had died.

"I feel that the accused must not be prosecuted because my son wanted to die and the accused assisted my son because he was unable to do so on his own due to his physical disabilities," said Burger's mother. 

2. Justin Varian suffered a stroke in 2010 and was diagnosed with motor neuron disease in 2011. He could not move, had difficulty swallowing, and had asked his brother, Robin, several times to send him to Amsterdam or Switzerland for assisted dying, but his brother declined. On July 25, 2015, in Varian's flat in Fresnaye, Cape Town, after a second attempt, Davison ended Varian's life by helium deoxygenation or asphyxiation. 

"He suffered for a very long time and wanted to choose when he could die and with some form of dignity," said Robin in an affidavit sent from the Republic of Ireland.

3. Richard Holland was a fit and active athlete until he was knocked off his bicycle during a training ride in Dubai in October 2012. He sustained brain damage so severe that he could only communicate via a system of eye movement and agreement to a verbal alphabet via slight thumb movement. He was fed through a tube in his stomach, suffered migraines and severe body pain due to the spasticity of his muscles.

Holland's sister, Philippa Misplon, submitted on behalf of her stepfather, Colin Rothschild, and mother Judith Rothschild, who live in Mauritius, that Richard wanted to die and said so many times.

Davison went to his home in Constantia and asked him in front of his family whether he still wanted to die. Holland said yes and Davison administered a lethal dose of phenylbarbitol to him on November 8, 2015.

"I have advised the advocate representing the State that I do not wish for the accused to be prosecuted. My brother had no quality of life and he expressed the desire to die on numerous occasions," said the family's affidavit.

His background

1. The 58-year-old son of doctor parents, Davison is a biochemistry professor who emigrated from New Zealand in 1991.

2. He conducted research at UCT and assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in identifying severely degraded bodies such as those of the Mamelodi 10.

3. He specialises in DNA work and is currently employed by UWC.

4. He helped his terminally ill mum, Patricia Ferguson, die in New Zealand with crushed morphine tablets, and spent five years in house detention in that country for that.

5. In South Africa, as an advocate of assisted dying for severely injured or ill people, he formed DignitySA.

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