A great-grandmother cleared of murdering her dying husband in a botched suicide pact endured an ‘appalling’ series of indignities after her arrest, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Mavis Eccleston was acquitted last week of killing Dennis, 81 – her husband of nearly 60 years – after a jury heard the couple had agreed to take a lethal cocktail of drugs to end their lives together.
In an exclusive and deeply moving interview with this newspaper, Mrs Eccleston and her family today reveal:
- She was arrested in her dressing gown, nightie and slippers, held in a cell for 30 hours and was still wearing the same clothes when she was finally released;
- Police denied her access to a proper toilet, after she said that she felt uncomfortable using the one inside her cell;
- She was left in tears after a psychiatric nurse ‘rubbed her back’ as she sat on a hospital bed and allegedly told her: ‘We have got to wait for the police because you have murdered your husband and you are going to prison for a long, long time’;
- A senior detective warned Mrs Eccleston’s son, Kevin, 60, and daughter Joy, 54: ‘I am going to make a precedent of your mother’s case.’
Last night campaigners on both sides of the assisted dying debate said the case, which caused 18 months of misery for the family, should never have been brought.
The couple were found unconscious by relatives at their Staffordshire home in February last year. Mrs Eccleston was successfully treated in the nearby County Hospital, Stafford, but her husband did not recover.
Of the detective’s ‘insensitive’ warning, Kevin Eccleston said last night: ‘What a thing to say. I immediately responded, “So you’ve hung, drawn and quartered her” to which he threw his arms wide and said, “It’s the law of the land”.’
Staffordshire Police yesterday declined to answer a series of questions about Mrs Eccleston’s treatment.
Instead, the force released a statement in which they spelt her name incorrectly. It said: ‘We are not aware of any concerns raised by Mavis Ecclestone (sic) or her family about the way that she was treated by anyone in Staffordshire Police. If Mrs Ecclestone or her family would like to discuss any concerns with us we would encourage them to get in touch.’
In an emotional interview with this newspaper, Mrs Eccleston and her family spoke warmly of their ‘highly respected, clever, dignified husband and father’, a former colliery manager. A dedicated family man, he and his wife were ‘inseparable’, rarely spending a day apart.
Mrs Eccleston revealed that, to spare her the misery of watching him suffer with terminal bowel cancer, her husband decided in 2015 that he would end his life. When he explained his intentions, she replied: ‘If that’s the way you are going then I am coming too.’
She said yesterday: ‘My life was nothing without him, so I didn’t care about living. If Dennis asked me to do it all again today, I would. I wanted to be with my husband. You wouldn’t let an animal suffer the way Dennis was suffering.’
The prosecution had alleged that Mr Eccleston had not known he was taking a potentially lethal overdose.
But the defence argued that it would not have been possible for him to be given a lethal dose of the drug without his knowledge because of its bitter taste. Mrs Eccleston was cleared unanimously of both murder and manslaughter.
The couple’s children went through 18 months of hell after first losing their father and then seeing their mother face the prospect of life in jail.
Their heartbreaking case has reignited the debate over assisted suicide.
But even those opposed to its legalisation expressed dismay at the decision to prosecute Mrs Eccleston.
A spokesman for Care Not Killing said: ‘Anybody who has read anything about this case will think this woman has been treated appallingly. And you’ve got to ask the question of the prosecutors and the police – was it really in the public interest to lock up this woman for tens of hours and then drag her through the courts?
‘What we should be doing is addressing the wider issues of how we address the care of people with terminal illnesses, rather than saying because there has been this bad case we’ve got to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia.’
Meanwhile, Sarah Wooton, chief executive of Dignity In Dying, which campaigns for the legalisation of assisted suicide said: ‘Our broken law has forced a dying man to end his own life in secret, and threatened his devoted wife of 60 years with life imprisonment for acting purely out of love. An honest, caring family has been dragged through hell for the last 18 months.’
She called on the Government to hold an inquiry into the ‘impact of the current law’ and its effects on families such as the Ecclestons.
Health chiefs declined to comment on the claim that a psychiatric nurse told Mrs Eccleston she would be going to prison for murder.
Mavis Eccleston awoke blinking at the bright ceiling lights, feeling nauseous and confused – and angry that she was still alive.
‘When I saw the nurses around me, when I realised I hadn’t died, I felt... well, very annoyed,’ says the 80-year-old, matter- of-factly.
Annoyed because it meant the suicide pact with her 81-year-old husband Dennis, who was in the last throes of a rapacious cancer, had failed. Hours earlier, unable to bear the thought of being apart, they had both taken an equal amount of prescription drugs, crushed and mixed with mineral water in their favourite china mugs.
Even in this final act there was much that was emblematic of their blissful marriage of nearly six decades. For one thing every action was underpinned by great tenderness. They fussed over each other and even managed, amid the unfamiliar, macabre ritual of it all, to nervously joke and laugh.
‘I was crushing the tablets and Dennis was popping capsules. I said to him: “It’s typical of you to get the easy job!”’
When the moment came – after houseproud Mavis insisted on washing up the dessert spoon that she used to mix the ‘potion’ and returning it to the cutlery drawer – Dennis sensed his wife’s trepidation. ‘Just hold your nose and chuck it down your throat,’ he advised.
Afterwards Mavis kissed her husband’s forehead as he sat back on a recliner chair. Then she swaddled him in extra blankets ‘because I thought he might get cold’.
She first met the love of her life when the young miner tapped her on the shoulder and asked her to dance one night in January 1958. They married in August the same year and rarely spent a night apart. They raised a fine family and in later years enjoyed looking after grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
After forcing the mixture down they said their farewells. ‘Goodnight darling,’ he said, his last words. She replied: ‘Goodnight, God bless.’
Mavis recalls drowsily moving to the room next door to finish writing their 14-page suicide note to their family. She had intended to say that they did not wish to be resuscitated but only got as far as: ‘We do not want...’ before trailing away, overcome.
She was found lying unconscious on the floor of their home in Huntington, Staffordshire, a couple of hours later following a chance visit by her daughter Lynne – something that saved her life. Mavis woke up in a small ward at Stafford County Hospital. ‘It wasn’t meant to be like this,’ she kept thinking to herself.
Directly opposite her was another bed. In it, though it took time to make sense of this, lay her husband, himself clinging to life. He would die the following day with Mavis – her bed by now pushed against his, so she could hold his hand – recounting their first date.
She had just got to the bit when her younger sister called out to her dad, ‘Mavis is kissing a boy!’ when Dennis slipped away. But not before a tear ran down his cheek.
Mavis draws comfort from this. ‘It means he could hear me,’ she says. This is where their love story should have ended, the searing poignancy and intimacy of these final scenes, in February last year, preserved within their loving family. But the police had other ideas.
In a nightmarish sequence of events that would have devastated Dennis, had he lived, Mavis was arrested, held in a cell, charged with murder and put on trial. Every facet of her life, it seemed, was under scrutiny.
Standing in the dock at Stafford Crown Court last week, flanked by two security guards – whom she charmed, as she does everyone she meets – Mavis struggled to follow the proceedings due to hearing problems. At times she was frightened, though she couldn’t conceive of being sent to prison simply because neither she nor her husband ‘could bear to be apart’.
The jury agreed, the foreman delivering the ‘not guilty’ verdict last Wednesday with heavy emphasis, as if to convey support. Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, Mavis says: ‘My life was nothing without him, so I didn’t care about living.
‘If Dennis asked me to do it all again today, I would. I wanted to be with my husband. You wouldn’t let an animal suffer the way Dennis was suffering.’
It goes without saying that Mavis and the couple’s son Kevin, 60 and daughters Lynne, 59, and Joy, 54, endured unimaginable torment in the 18 months between arrest and acquittal.
Few would blame them for harbouring feelings of bitterness. That all of them have weathered the injustices and indignities with decency is to their credit, and said a close relative yesterday, ‘typical of this lovely family’.
They recognise that the police have to do their jobs. What they want is a change in the law to allow assisted suicide in certain situations. The case hinged on what Mavis is supposed to have said to two mental health nurses who assessed her the day after she woke up in hospital following the botched suicide attempt.
They said Mavis admitted that her husband did not know what he was taking, something she denies. Mavis was alone during this interrogation and it was not recorded.
Daughter Joy, a businesswoman, said: ‘Mum had just come round after a suicide attempt, she was in shock, confused, her husband had died hours earlier – how can it be right for her to be questioned in this state?’
Even if Mavis did say something potentially incriminating, her family believe it may have been because she is hard of hearing and simply misconstrued a question. What followed, say the family, was unforgivable.
Mavis, waiting to be taken home by her family, was sitting on her bed in her dressing gown, nightdress and slippers, having been discharged by a doctor. It was at this point that her family claim one of the psychiatric nurses rubbed their mother’s back while telling her: ‘Well you see, Mavis, we have got to wait for the police because you have murdered your husband and you are going to go to prison for a long, long time.’
This remark was made, say her family, in front of Joy and Kevin, who were furious, the latter calling the nurse ‘an evil cow’.
Joy recalls: ‘The situation became hostile and I said to the nurse, “I hope you can sleep at night.” And she said, “Oh, I will. I’m only doing my job.” Throughout this, Mum was sitting there crying.’
Two police officers then arrived and took Joy and her mother to a quiet room where they explained they were going to arrest Mavis. ‘What for? Assisted suicide?’ asked Joy. ‘No, murder,’ came the reply.
Joy says the officers were ‘lovely and treated Mum with decency and great respect. They are human beings and they had a job to do, they were just following the law of the land. I was holding on to her –she was in her nightie and dressing gown – and I asked, “Does she have to go now and can I come with her?”. They said that I had to return home to make a statement.
‘Mum was clearly confused but she said, “Don’t worry Joy, I’ve got nothing to hide, let me go and answer the questions.”’
In the event, Joy’s son Ben, 33, accompanied his grandmother as she was ushered into a police van. ‘The policeman assured us it would only take about three hours and said, “Don’t worry Joy, we’ll have her back by the end of the night.”’
And so, 4ft 8in Mavis – who was not in the best of health herself ,having undergone a triple heart bypass in her 60s – was taken to Stoke-on-Trent police station where she would remain, not for a few hours, but 30. She was finally released – still in her nightie and slippers – at midnight the following day.
What bothered Mavis most of all was not the questioning – she has an unshakeable belief that ‘all will be fine if you tell the truth’ – or the delay in carrying out a psychiatric assessment, but that there was a toilet in her cell.
For a proud lady in her ninth decade, this was an indignity too far. ‘It didn’t seem right. I wanted to go and use the one outside, but they wouldn’t let me.’ Her son and daughters, meanwhile, were all making witness statements to police – unknowingly for the prosecution – and were told this prevented them acting as an ‘appropriate adult’ during Mavis’s interview.
Instead, one of Joy’s friends was dispatched to the police station from her home in Leeds. On arrival, she railed at one officer: ‘Would you be happy if your mum was treated like this?’ At this, the officer backed down and let Mavis out of her cell to use the lavatory.
None of her family could allow themselves to confront the possibility that all this might be a foretaste of something far more terrible. ‘No one thought she would be charged with murder, but that happened two months later.’
It was decided that Joy and Kevin, having been alerted by a solicitor, should break the devastating news to Mavis at home.
Police were in agreement and put her GP on standby fearing the toll it might inflict.
‘I had her heart spray at the ready,’ said Joy. ‘We asked her to sit down and gently explained what was going to happen. She broke down in disbelief, sobbing and sobbing.’
According to the family the police appeared to disregard their evidence that the suicide pact had in fact been agreed two-and-a-half years earlier.
After being diagnosed with bowel cancer in May 2015 and given six months to live, Dennis told his son that he would take his own life. ‘He didn’t want me to see him suffer,’ explained Mavis.
First, though, he made Kevin promise not to tell his mother and sisters. ‘I hated it, but I respected my dad too much to go against his wishes.’
In his own family, and across the wider Eccleston clan, Dennis was a towering figure, a much respected patriarch whose sage advice was regularly sought.
‘He worked his way up through study to become a manager at the colliery,’ said Mavis. ‘He was a clever man – honest, honourable and hard-working. A man who above all else loved his wife and family. People came to him with their problems and he would do anything to help anyone.’
He was also a profoundly dignified man who refused treatment for his cancer.
He just wanted to die privately, ‘without having to be a burden on anyone’ says Mavis. He only managed to keep his secret for three weeks. He was forced to tell Mavis as a palliative care team was visiting their home to discuss plans for the weeks ahead.
The moment he told Mavis he intended to commit suicide she told him: ‘If that’s the way you are going then I am coming too.’
Kevin says Dennis became ‘like a broken record’ talking about the double suicide.
‘It got to the stage where every time any of us went to visit we were frightened about what we might find,’ he said. ‘We were living under such pressure. I went to that house hundreds of times feeling that way, not knowing what I might find when I let myself in.’
Dennis asked Joy to look into euthanasia but, worried about prosecution, she refused and told him she could not get travel insurance to go to Switzerland.
Joy said: ‘I could understand why dad wanted to go when the time came but I couldn’t understand why mum wanted to.’ Every time her mother raised the subject, Joy quickly turned the conversation elsewhere. ‘I couldn’t deal with it,’ she says.
When her father began deteriorating in the last six months of his life, Joy even tried to ‘blackmail’ her mother on a visit with her daughter Ruth, 22, asking: ‘What about us mum? Don’t you want to see Ruth marry one day or me become a grandmother?’
Joy said: ‘There were tears in my eyes and I took mum’s hand. She told me, “I love you, I love you all dearly, but I love your dad and I want to be with him.”
‘I knew then they would go ahead with it and I gave her my blessing. I said, “OK, mum”.’
Mavis said she and her husband only talked about their pact ‘on days he was really bad’ and never spoke about how it would happen.
‘I trusted Dennis to tell me when the time was right,’ she says.
That moment came in February 2018 when she heard her husband crying out ‘like a wounded animal’ in the early hours of the morning. They were sleeping in separate rooms for his comfort.
Mavis said: ‘I heard this noise I’d never heard before. I had one of those illuminated clocks and looked at it. It was 3am. I went in to see Dennis and he was in agony, distress, discomfort. He had always been careful not to let me see him like this.
‘I made the decision then. I said, “Dennis, I’m doing it”, He said “Do you mean it Mavis, do you really, really mean it?” He then kissed my hand and I think that was a thank-you. I then asked him what I had to do.’
He instructed his wife to fetch the prescribed painkillers and sleeping tablets he’d been stockpiling in a plastic cup hidden in a dresser in the living room. It was then that they mixed their ‘potion’ together, says Mavis, sure of what was about to happen next.
Today Mavis, now living with Joy at her Derbyshire home where she keeps her husband’s ashes in a casket on a bedside table, says she no longer has thoughts of suicide.
‘I don’t regret what I did and wouldn’t change what happened. I live with a very contended family and I am happy for them – but I would still rather be with Dennis.’