Last May, about 60 members of the Halifax regional police force swarmed into the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre and arrested Dr. Nancy Morrison, a popular, highly regarded respirologist. Shocking her colleagues and friends—and provoking expressions of outrage from the general public—the police subsequently charged Morrison with murdering 65-year-old cancer patient Paul Mills, who died in the Halifax hospital’s intensive care unit on Nov. 10, 1996. Nova Scotia justice officials seemed unequivocal about the nature of the alleged crime. “This is a first-degree murder charge,” declared Crown prosecutor Craig Botterill, “and I’m arguing that she killed him.” But the case took a dramatic turn last week as Botterill announced that Morrison would instead be prosecuted on the lesser charge of manslaughter.
After an exhaustive review, Botterill told reporters, the Crown had concluded that “it was not in the public interest” to charge Morrison with first-degree murder.
Botterill said several factors influenced the Crown’s decision. Among them, he said, was the progress made in investigating other hospital deaths that had been reported by concerned families following Morrison’s arrest. Of 31 such reports, police have ruled out foul play in 23; the others are still under investigation. Botterill said his office also took note of the public’s views about the Morrison case—including petitions, cards and letters urging the charges be dropped. In the end, he said, the Crown concluded that the mandatory life sentence that comes with a first-degree conviction was too “harsh and oppressive” to apply to the Morrison case. Manslaughter—which can carry a range of punishments, from a suspended sentence to life imprisonment—was more appropriate, he added.
Not everyone seemed to agree. In an unusual twist, the police—who in Nova Scotia have the right to lay charges with or without consulting the prosecutor’s office—declined to withdraw the first-
degree murder charge against Morrison. That left the Crown with no option but to notify the court that it would instead be pursuing a manslaughter charge following the preliminary inquiry, which is slated to begin in February. Morrison’s lawyer, Joel Pink, found that apparent rift between the two law enforcement agencies perplexing. But even more troubling, he told reporters, “is why the police laid the charge before they completed their investigation.” Even the manslaughter charge is unwarranted, said Pink, adding: “Dr. Morrison is not
guilty of anything.”
According to Stephen Cough Ian, a professor of law at Dalhousie University, the decision to reduce the charge is open to a variety of interpretations. Crown lawyers may simply have concluded no jury would convict Morrison if it meant sending her to jail for life, he says. Certainly, the weight of public opinion to date has been heavily in favor of Morrison, who went on a paid leave of absence for two months after the charge was laid, then returned to work (although not in the intensive care unit) in July. Halifax resident Chris
Woodbury says she had no trouble raising nearly 5,000 signatures on a petition demanding the charge be dropped. Woodbury, whose mother died of cancer 22 years ago, says the case has brought the justice system into disrepute and is likely having a chilling affect on how doctors deal with dying patients. “All of us recognize that the care that goes on between a dying patient and a physician is a very intimate thing,” she says. “And we’re all in trouble when police start wandering around intensive care units, looking over physicians’ shoulders.”
One thing that spokesmen on both sides of the legal battle stressed last week was that the charges against Morrison have nothing to do with mercy killing. “This is not a case of doctor-assisted suicide,” said Pink, “this is not euthanasia.” So what is it then? he was asked. “Forthat,” Pink replied, “you will have to wait and see.”
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