Few accused facing a serious criminal charge in recent years have aroused more public sympathy than Ian Gordon, who killed his wife by smothering her. According to some reports, he intends to appeal the exceptionally lenient sentence of three years and four months imposed by the High Court. If the press and the citizen journalists on social media had their way, Mr Gordon would already be a free man.
Yet the popular notion that this was a mercy killing of a dying woman does not bear dispassionate inquiry – the kind made next to impossible by the overwhelming wave of mawkish sentiment.
It is a strange case for several reasons, not least its extraordinary handling by the Crown Office. Mr Gordon was originally charged with murdering his wife Patricia at their home in Troon. His trial had entered its third day when the Crown decided that it wasn't murder after all and accepted a plea of culpable homicide on the grounds of diminished responsibility – the defence’s position from the outset.
Why the prosecution’s abrupt change of mind? Crown counsel explained
that the trial would have continued had it not been for the evidence of the couple's daughter, Gail Whyte, who had spoken movingly of her father's devotion to his sick wife and of her mother's wretched health. It is surprising that the prosecution had not acquainted itself with these essential facts before empanelling a jury.
Whatever happened to the old-fashioned notion that lawyers never ask
questions to which they do not already know the answers? Ms Whyte might as well have arrived from another planet, so ill-prepared did the Crown appear to be for her shattering testimony. I don't know exactly what she said. Nor, since I wasn't there, am I able to assess for myself the impact of her evidence on the court (though clearly it must have been considerable). In the absence of a transcript, I rely on sketchy media accounts for the following narrative.
The day before her mother's death, Ms Whyte arrived at her parents' house and spent some time there. Her mother was 'screaming and moaning' and unable to get comfortable. Mr Gordon was understandably distressed, but there is no suggestion that he was preparing to take his wife's life. By the time Ms Whyte left, there were signs of improvement: her mother was 'settled and had stopped crying out.'
At 4.30 the following morning, however, her father telephoned to say that she was 'away'. Then or later he told Ms Whyte that he was 'sorry' but that he 'couldn’t see her in that pain.' A paramedic found him lying on the bed stroking his dead wife's face. The act of smothering her with a pillow had taken about a minute.
The evidence of Mrs Gordon's condition leaves vital questions unsettled. First, what was the cause of her suffering?
Patricia Gordon had a history of anxiety and depression and a deep-rooted fear of hospitals. Bad enough – although the same could be said of many others. She also had a pulmonary problem caused by smoking, which she chose to believe was, or had developed into, lung cancer. This has been translated as 'suspected lung cancer' (Daily Record), but in the absence of any professional diagnosis the suspicion was hers alone. No doctor ever confirmed it. No doctor ever had the opportunity. The suggestion of the Daily Express that she was 'terminally ill' has no justification in fact.
Next, why did the family not seek urgent medical assistance to alleviate her physical and psychological ill-health? Why was she not rushed into hospital, where she would have received treatment for her condition, whatever it was, and immediate pain relief? Evidently it was out of a misplaced regard for her feelings. But if she refused to go to hospital, there was a practical alternative: pain relief could have been given at home. That too was ruled out, if it was considered at all.
Although Mrs Gordon did not attempt to take her own life, there was
supposedly an agreement between the couple; what the newspapers are
calling a 'death pact.' If there was an agreement, it does not appear to exist in written form, and there was no independent testimony to support it. There is also the question of whether Mrs Gordon had the mental capacity to enter into such an agreement.
Last week, Ian Gordon appeared in court for sentence. The judge said that he had carefully considered 'the many supportive letters and character references' tendered on his behalf as well as a favourable social inquiry report. He acknowledged that Mr Gordon had lived an exemplary life, that he had been devoted to his wife, and that he continued to have the support of family and friends. But – it was a decisive but – Lord Arthurson had decided that 'in the public interest' a custodial sentence was unavoidable.
The Daily Record set the tone of the media's reaction to the outcome
with its front-page lead JAILED FOR A FINAL ACT OF LOVE and an inside
double-page spread headed JUDGE JAILS OAP FOR KILLING SICK WIFE TO END HER AGONY. The 'final act of love,' although it read as if this was
the newspaper's view, was actually a phrase from a character reference, yet so wholeheartedly endorsed by the Record that there was no need to wrap quote marks around it. It should also be emphasised that Mr Gordon is not exactly ancient by modern standards. If he lost his appeal and served half his sentence before parole, he would still be 18 months short of his 70th birthday on release.
Under a photograph of the judge, the Record appended the caption 'Harsh line.' The message is clear: pressing a pillow against your spouse's face until she stops breathing is worth less, perhaps much less, than a prison sentence of three years and four months. What would Mr Gordon's supporters have preferred? A community service order? An absolute discharge? The accused said immediately after the event that, for what he had done, he expected to go to prison. He was right: that is where he belongs.
The judge got it right too: there is a public interest. It is an interest we ought to share in deterring people from taking human life.
The case for assisted death is not assisted by this ambiguous case. Mr
Gordon should have called an ambulance for his suffering wife, aged only 63, whether she liked it or not. Had he done so, it need not have been a final act of love. She might have lived. She might even have recovered. We shall never know.