Jury acquits all three doctors in euthanasia case


The psychiatrist and two physicians on trial for murder in the case of Tine Nys have been declared innocent by the jury, due to a lack of evidence that they broke laws pertaining to the administration of euthanasia

Problems fall short of charges, says jury

The three doctors accused of murder in the euthanasia case in Ghent have been declared not guilty by the jury. The jury of 12 reached its decision last night after hearing final arguments in a case that has dominated the news for weeks.

Physician Joris Van Hove, an unnamed physician and psychiatrist Lieve Thienpont were accused of murder by the family of Tine Nys, who died by euthanasia in 2010. Nys, 38 at the time, had requested euthanasia because of intense psychological suffering.

It was the first court case involving the administration of euthanasia in the country since the law allowing it was passed in 2002. Belgium’s euthanasia law allows the procedure to be carried out for either intense physical or psychological suffering.

Remaining doubts

The jury was faced with two questions for each doctor: Is the doctor guilty of manslaughter and, if so, are there aggravated circumstances involving poison? Yes to the second question would have meant a conviction of murder.

According to Nys’s family, the procedures required in the euthanasia process were not properly carried out. The jury eventually said that they could not say with certainly if that was the case.

“The investigation into this case does not make it possible to determine with the certainty required by law whether the conditions and procedures required by law have been infringed,” declared the head of the jury.

In hindsight, we all could have done better. I have learned lessons from this entire process

- Doctor Joris Van Hove

The trial, which lasted two weeks, took some unexpected turns. Last week the lawyer representing the Nys siblings, Fernand Keuleneer, had to hand the case over to an assistant after it was revealed that he had sat on the committee that approved Tine Nys’s euthanasia process. The committee must review all cases of euthanasia carried out in the country.

Then this week, the Nys family's new lawyer joined the public prosecutor in asking that Tine’s regular doctor, who has gone unnamed during the court case, be acquitted. The public prosecutor said that, while the question remained whether the other doctors led Tine through the process properly and responsibly, the same could not be said of her family doctor.

Her doctor’s signature was used to approve Tine’s request, together with signatures from Van Hove – who carried out the euthanasia – and Thienpont. The law requires that two physicians and a psychologist approve any request for euthanasia in the case of psychological trauma.

The courtroom broke out into applause following the reading of the verdict

“He didn’t really agree with Tine’s request to receive euthanasia,” said the public prosecutor. He “jotted off a note” for Tine as she was going to approach a second doctor for approval, “and his signature was misused by the other two. Until the trial, I was of the opinion that he had made mistakes. But it has become clear to me that he was not involved in the proceedings and that he cannot be blamed for anything.”

It also appears that the family doctor was not informed that the euthanasia was actually scheduled; he did not know until afterwards that it had taken place.

The case has called into question whether mental health problems should qualify for the right to euthanasia. While that law is not likely to change, justice experts at the trial pointed to breaches in procedure that must not happen in the future if the medical community wants to prevent the euthanasia law from being called into question.

Procedural problems

The doctors who do not carry out the procedure, for instance, must be “independent” of the patient, which means that Tine’s own doctor should not have been one of the signatures involved, unless he carried out the procedure, which he did not.

Experts also pointed to problems with Tine’s file. The doctor registered to the case, for instance, should be the one carrying out the procedure but in this case was her family doctor.

More generally, justice experts have questioned why the euthanasia commission approves a procedure after the fact rather than before it is carried out.

“I am grateful that this is over,” said Van Hove after the jury’s announcement yesterday evening. “But nobody has won in this case; we have all been damaged by it. In hindsight, we all could have done better. I have learned lessons from this entire process.”

Photo top, from left: Tine Nys’s family doctor, Joris Van Hove and Van Hove’s lawyer Walter Van Steenbrugge
©Photos Nicolas Maeterlinck/BELGA