'Dad, this’ll just make you go to sleep': Calls for euthanasia reform
Thursday, 7th December, 2017
IT'S A beautiful, sunny day north of Brisbane as 88-year-old former firefighter John Nixon sits under a shady tree. He pats his son’s dog and sips on a mix of Coca-Cola, Valium and oxycodone that police unsuccessfully claimed killed him.
“Dad, this’ll just make you go to sleep,” his son says.
That was Peter John Nixon’s description of the last conversation he ever had with the man he loved and cared for, given to police as his father lay dying and played to a silent courtroom as he beat a charge of helping his father commit suicide.
The day after Victoria’s Parliament passed historic euthanasia reforms, the builder was sitting in a Queensland court, defending himself from accusations he helped cut short his “frail”, sick father’s life.
The 59-year-old watched lawyers argue as his future hung in the balance, left arm straight out on the neighbouring chair, one finger proudly displaying his father’s Queensland Fire and Emergency Services ring, a tribute.
From the beginning, jurors were warned of the sensitivity of the issues at hand, told to ignore their personal beliefs and public opinion. Three felt they could not and had to be replaced.
But beginning when it did, the trial was always going to be viewed through the lens of the voluntary euthanasia discussion from the outside.
Six days later, the former Australian ice hockey player gave only a shake of the head and a smile as he avoided becoming the second Queenslander convicted of aiding suicide.
There were hugs and handshakes in court but the full weight of what he had been through, to “hell and back” according to his barrister, didn’t show through until he stepped outside.
“Everybody’s life is a long journey and I don’t think anybody's journey would like to have to encompass what my family, myself have been through over the last two-and-a-half years and longer,” he said, breaking down as he showed reporters the ring, “that memory of me father”.
Even as the real prospect of jail time hung over him, Mr Nixon’s “undoubted” love for his father, a Navy veteran and firefighter, was never in question from either side.
John Stephen Nixon was 88 years old, just a few weeks shy of his birthday, when he died in the Prince Charles Hospital on May 9, 2015, 12 days after drinking the concoction at his son's Petrie home.
The former “exercise freak” had a “list of diseases as long as your arm” and medication regime to match, the court heard, suffering dementia, a prostate condition and having lost the ability to walk and properly use the toilet.
Mr Nixon’s own barrister, former MP Dean Wells, admitted the older man wanted to die.
Describing his life as “constant pain”, the lawyer speculated his client may well have wanted to end his father's suffering but argued an emotional video interview with police as his dad lay dying in hospital was not enough to prove that was what the drug-laced Coke was intended for.
Mr Nixon had even tasted the drink himself to ensure it wasn’t too “bitter” or distasteful for his father, after taking him home instead of to a scheduled X-ray appointment.
He told police his father was unconscious within minutes and he took him to Brisbane’s Prince Charles Hospital, where the court heard he later described the concoction his dad drank as “poison”.
It was this concoction, sitting in the Nixon family fridge for two years prior, that police alleged killed John Nixon. The crown attempted to prove both father and son wanted the older man to die as a result of drinking the concoction, pointing to Mr Nixon’s version of the last conversation the men ever had, as related to police in a video interview.
“You’re probably going to get yourself in a lot of trouble,” Mr Nixon snr said.
“It doesn’t matter. If you want to do it, here, you do it,” his son replied.
But after less than three hours of deliberation, a jury found him not guilty of aiding suicide. Jurors directed to decide whether there was enough proof of both intent to die and that the drink was a substantial cause decided the Crown had not proved either one or both.
Mr Nixon saw more or less what direction his life was headed in from the moment he agreed to an emotional police interview on May 1, 2015, it seemed.
Addressing “the public or the magistrate or the jury” two-and-a-half years before they would ever hear what he had to say, Mr Nixon looked down the camera and warned there were “hundreds of thousands” of people in his position.
“Hopefully something comes out of this,” he said.
“When people are still cognitive enough (that) they don’t want to participate in this world, so be it.”
He sobbed, not when speaking about what he had done but in telling police about his father’s early life in Brisbane and describing how far his life had deteriorated.
“Society has got to know that there’s people in this situation and it’s not an act of vengeance or whatever,” he said.
"It’s an act of love and kindness. It’s not the easiest thing to do and and I think a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do it but where I stuffed up was when I put dad into aged care five years ago.”
Those messages were echoed by others after the verdict but neither his anachronistic call for change or assisted dying supporters’ more timely pleas appeared likely to have an impact.
Dying with Dignity Queensland president Jos Hall, who said she had been unable to fulfil both her parents’ wishes for voluntary euthanasia, said the case highlighted the need for change.
“If anything, I just feel absolute sympathy and empathy for everyone whose loved ones ask them to help them end their life,” she said.
“It’s a dreadful situation to be in.”
Ms Palaszczuk would not commit to any plans.
But despite in July passing a motion committing to legalising voluntary assisted dying in Queensland, the Labor Party had no plans for change.
“With regards to the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia, it is important to remember that there remains significant concern about the legalisation of euthanasia and the ability of government to ensure that the lives of the vulnerable and those unable to speak for themselves are sufficiently protected,” a spokesman for caretaker Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said, in a statement.
“With that in mind, the Palaszczuk government has no current plans to introduce legislation to allow for voluntary euthanasia and will continue to closely monitor developments in other jurisdictions.”
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