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How years of torment, an act of mercy and one moment of honesty left this woman in jail

Opinion

This Brisbane woman tried to end her disabled father’s misery – but failed in her “assisted dying” attempt. If she had killed him, she would be free now – but instead she’s in prison. Madonna King asks why?

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Rebecca Louise Burden could be any one of us, but she’s sitting in a jail cell today after a tragedy played out recently in Brisbane’s Supreme Court.

From the reporting of that case, we know that Rebecca is 47 and has lived a world of pain. She lost her twin children. Her father was terribly injured in a car accident in 2017, while driving her on the first anniversary of their death.

We know – and many might understand – that life’s curve-balls meant she developed an alcohol problem, along with suicidal ideation, depression and anxiety.

But it was none of those that landed her before a court this month, for sentencing.

Rebecca Louise Burden faced an attempted murder charge, after smothering her 68-year-old Dad, who had suffered brain injuries in that car accident.

And she pleaded guilty. Not only at the court case, but moments after she took a pillow – at her father’s request – and tried to end his pain.

“Please, just kill me,’’ he pleaded with her. “I don’t want to be here anymore.’’

He was crying. It was one of their first face-to-face visits at his Sandgate nursing facility after a Covid-19 lockdown.

As she lay on the bed with her father, who suffered both severe dementia and cognitive impairment, she told him she couldn’t do that.

He continued to cry. Her dad. The judge, presiding over the sentencing, said her father was sad. “He repeatedly asked you to get him out of the facility, and he was crying’’.

Rebecca stroked his forehead until he closed his eyes. And then, in the words of the judge, “you took a cushion or pillow from the chair, placed it over his face and held it down over him for 25-30 seconds’’.

She told police “something in her just went’’ and she had thought she was doing him “a favour’’.

Immediately, her father’s legs jerked. And Rebecca stopped, hugged him, and told him she was sorry. (He has no memory of the event)

This daughter then walked outside and alerted staff, confessing immediately to what she had done. And little doubt exists that no-one would know, still, unless she had done that.

Her punishment? Five years’ jail, in what the judge termed an ‘exceptional’ case. And yes, parole eligibility will mean she is out next year – but can any jail term in this case fit the definition of ‘justice’?

No. Anyone who has laid in a bed with a parent dying of excruciating pain and sadness will know – and understand – the torment faced by this daughter.

And perhaps it’s been good luck or a timely intervention or something else that has prohibited similar cases getting to court.

The judge, in this case, didn’t believe this tragedy had the “same exceptional quality as one sees in the cases involving loving, long-term spouses who enter into a suicide pact because one is in unbearable pain and the other can’t bear to live without them’’.

“Nor does your case have the same exceptional quality as the cases where enormous pressure is brought to bear on a family member by another with full capacity, intent on suicide and seeking death.

“Or the cases involving a murder-suicide driven by a serious depressive illness.’’

But surely it does. A distraught daughter. A father pleading to end his life. And a moment of torment and indecision.

How does that compare to the sentence given in other courts, around the same time?

The case of the meth-fuelled crim who beat a woman and got a two-and-half year jail term with immediate parole?

Or the bloke who, with a long and violent history, punched a woman, breached a DVO, and broke into her premises. He got 18 months’ jail and will be out in four months.

Or the man who seriously assaulted a police officer – and was given 12 months imprisonment, but having served 236 days, was given immediate parole on that sentence.

Or the meth-addicted father who robbed and assaulted a flatmate with an iron bar. His sentence? Two-and-half-years, but having been in custody for 295 days, he is now free.

Rebecca Louise Burden made an awful mistake, and owned up to it immediately. Her actions were driven out of love, and her father suffered no consequences – except perhaps that his daughter, locked away, can no longer visit him.

Where is the justice in that?

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