South Africa


‘I’m no murderer’ – after home arrest, Sean Davison vows to fight in Desmond Tutu’s honour to change assisted suicide law

‘I’m no murderer’ – after home arrest, Sean Davison vows to fight in Desmond Tutu’s honour to change assisted suicide law
Professor Sean Davison speaks to the media outside the Cape Town High Court on 20 June 2022. His book, The Price of Mercy, has just been published. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Speaking publicly for the first time after ending three years of house arrest after being convicted for helping three people to die DignitySA founder Professor Sean Davison said it was time the law changed to recognise compassion – where euthanasia is not confused with murder.

‘I have done my time. But I did not commit a crime,” said Professor Sean Davison, founder and director of DignitySA which has been lobbying for a change to end-of-life legislation in South Africa. 

Speaking on the steps of the Cape Town High Court on Monday, Davison was marking the end of his three-year house arrest sentence, after being convicted in 2019 on three counts of premeditated murder. 

“This is no longer about me. This is about the fact that other people will find themselves in the same position that I was in. It is about the fact that other people will find themselves in the same position as the three men I helped to die,” he said. 

In September 2018, Davison was arrested and charged with the murder of his quadriplegic friend, Dr Anrich Burger.

Burger had first contacted Davison to offer support for DignitySA which Davison had established in 2011 after his return to South Africa from New Zealand. Davison was initially going to accompany his friend to Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, until Burger decided he wanted to die in South Africa. 

Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm previously reported that Davison had sat with the deceased in a hotel room in Cape Town, where Burger had “consumed a lethal dose of phenobarbital” in 2013. 

In November 2018, Davison faced a second murder charge, over the death of Justin Varian, who was terminally ill with motor neurone disease. Davison was reportedly accused of placing a bag over Varian’s head and pumping in helium to suffocate him.

Professor Sean Davison with Professor Willem Landman of DignitySA, Dieter Harck, who is terminally ill, and his wife Lynn at the Cape Town High Court on 20 June 2022. Davison has completed three years of house arrest after he was convicted on three counts of premeditated murder for helping three people to end their lives. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

In April 2019, Davison faced a third charge of premeditated murder, after he was accused of killing Richard Holland, a South African triathlete who suffered a brain injury which left him with locked-in syndrome.

Each charge of premeditated murder carried a mandatory life imprisonment sentence.

Davison was convicted in the Cape Town High Court on three counts of premeditated murder, on 19 June 2019. In a plea bargain agreement with the State he received three years’ house arrest and was barred from speaking to the media for the duration of his sentence.

“I helped three men to die – three men suffering unbearably with no hope of recovery. Three men desperate to die, and three men incapable of ending their own lives. For that the court found me a murderer. I am not a murderer, I am not a criminal,” he said. 

“The time has come to change the law. The time has come to have a good law, a law that is compassionate and kind and does not confuse euthanasia with murder.”

Davison, who holds dual South African and New Zealand citizenship, first made headlines in 2010 when he was arrested and charged after he had helped his 85-year-old, terminally ill mother to die in 2006. Following a trial in the Dunedin High Court, Davison was convicted of his mother’s assisted suicide and sentenced to five months’ house arrest in New Zealand.

Read more: “Sean Davison’s euthanasia trial carries a 44-year-old echo — and not much has changed

On the high court steps on Monday, Davison maintained that he had helped his mother to die out of compassion. 

“I did not cross a line,” he said. “I helped my mother to die out of compassion and I helped the three men to die out of compassion. Compassion is compassion. Why should the compassion for my mother be any different from the compassion I felt for these men?”

“I did not cross a line – there was no line to cross.”

Davison previously attributed that relatively light sentence partly to the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s plea to the New Zealand court for leniency. Tutu was a friend of Davison’s and supported the campaign of DignitySA to change the law on assisted suicide.

“I’d like to gratefully acknowledge the friendship and support of the late Archbishop Tutu,” said Davison.

“Not only did he support me every step of my journey, but he was instrumental in opening the eyes of the world to the issues of dying and the need to change the law. In his honour, I will continue working for his wish to change the law,” he added. 

Addressing the media outside the high court, Davison extended his thanks to “the millions of South Africans who are holding out for a law change and getting frustrated at the slow progress”.

“I want to thank them for being patient and believing it will happen; because it will happen. We will have a good law, a compassionate law and a law that does not confuse euthanasia with murder,” he added. 

Professor Sean Davison speaks to the media at the Cape Town High Court on 20 June 2022. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Davison added that on his first official day of freedom, a woman suffering from an incurable disease had contacted him, asking for assistance to die.

“Emma contacted me today for the first time, asking for help to die, suffering unbearably from an incurable disease. I thank Emma for her understanding that I cannot help her,” he said. 

Read more: “High court will hear case to legalise euthanasia for terminally ill patients

While Davison insisted he did not have any resentment towards the court or law enforcement, he took aim at the lack of action by politicians and the slow pace of change in legalising assisted suicide in South Africa. 

“I am very disappointed with the politicians – the politicians who are fearful of engaging in an issue that is too controversial. It’s time they started engaging in the debate and the discussions, and did something about changing the law,” he said, adding that other countries around the world are amending their laws, including New Zealand and Canada. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Rory Macnamara says:

    Prof Davison, you have shown more courage than any number of politicians democracy has foisted upon us in the world. SA politicians are the worst because they do not have the guts to change hence the mess SA is in. I will support any petition for euthanasia. how about it DM?

  • Paul Fanner says:

    Drop that word euthanasia. To me that says you personally have no choice, as in a Nazi death camp. Use assisted dying instead

  • Hermann Funk says:

    The right to die should be entrenched in law as the right to life is.

  • Johan Buys says:

    Why are people doing this all so publicly? The publicity is guaranteed to attract opponents. Various organizations in SA ease the exit for thousands of patients every year as a normal option among treatment options. A good living will is required.

  • Wendy Dewberry says:

    Thank god for strong trailblazing angels like you. May your message be heard across our land, because compassion is a necessary part of our living if we are to do it well, like a baton we all need to carry and pass on, as it should.

  • Dear Parties Involved. I can only hope and pray that progress is made into this sensitive issue as many are suffering daily with no hope in sight. I pray that our government along with Internation bodies will come to see the humane and vital light this plays in a healthy happy community. I beg for assistance after long ten years of emotional and mental suffering – and the fear that comes with ending one’s own life. I pray for a body to recognise and support our pain. In hope. Marjorie.

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