Assisted suicide trial: Dublin woman found not guilty of assisting friend

The jury at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court took seven hours to find Gail O’Rorke (43) not guilty of the charge
The jury at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court took seven hours to find Gail O’Rorke (43) not guilty of the charge

A woman has been acquitted of attempting to assist the suicide of her friend by helping her travel to a euthanasia clinic in Switzerland.

The jury at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court took seven hours to find Gail O’Rorke (43) not guilty of the charge after an eight day trial. It was the first prosecution under the Criminal Law (Suicide) Act 1993 which decriminalised suicide but made it an offence to assist another to end their life

Ms O’Rorke, a taxi driver from Kilclare Gardens, Tallaght was accused of attempting to help Bernadette Forde (51) get to the Swiss euthanasia clinic Dignitas, a plan that was thwarted when the travel agent alerted gardaí. Ms Forde was suffering from a severe form of multiple sclerosis before her death.

There were cheers and applause from the large group of Ms O’Rorke’s supporters when the jury forewoman read out the verdict. Ms O’Rorke wept as she heard the decision.

Judge Patrick McCartan told the jury that it wasn’t an easy case but “justice has been done at your hands”. He said it was clear from the length of deliberations that jurors had taken their oath seriously.

The judge relieved the jury from further service for ten years. Ms O’Rorke’s supporters applauded jurors as they left the court.

After the eight day trial, Ms O’Rorke’s husband Barry said outside court that he couldn’t believe it was over.

Ms O’Rorke pleaded not guilty to attempting to aid and abet the suicide of Ms Forde by means of attempting to arrange travel to Zurich for such purpose between March 10 and April 20, 2011.

Last week, following legal argument, Judge Patrick McCartan ordered the jury to acquit Ms O’Rorke of ordering a lethal dose of barbiturates from Mexico which were later taken by Ms Forde to end her life on June 5, 2011.

The judge also told the jury of six men and six women to find Ms O’Rorke not guilty of “procuring” the suicide of her friend by helping to organise her funeral before her death.

Judge McCartan told jurors that he was ordering not guilty verdicts in the final two charges because he agreed with the defence’s argument that the prosecution has not produced enough evidence for the counts to go before a jury.

The trial heard a garda investigation was launched after Ms Forde’s body was found in her Donnybrook apartment with the drug pentobarbital nearby. The court heard that pentobarbital is used in capital punishment in the US and in euthanasia.

One of the first pieces of prosecution evidence was an audio message made by Ms Forde which was also found near her body along with a note that read: “Gardaí I can’t really write. I’ve left a message on this recorder. B. Forde.”

In the recording Ms Forde states that she cannot have “Gail or Mary or anyone” around her anymore for fear she could get them into trouble.

“It’s just so unfair that I can’t contact or chat to anyone and I have to be totally alone. But that’s just it.”

She continued: “I hope it will make my intentions clear to anyone who wants to question it afterwards. It’s me and only me and no one else. I’m just very frustrated it has to be this way. Why is it in Ireland that I can’t get my way to Dignitas?”

Ms O’Rorke started as a cleaner for Ms Forde, a former human resources manager with Guinness, but they became close friends over the years. The accused became a carer for Ms Forde as her disease progressed.

The trial heard that gardaí first became involved the previous April when they were alerted by the manager of Rathgar Travel that a group of people were travelling to Dignitas in Zurich.

Ms O’Rorke had booked three flights to Zurich for herself, Ms Forde and Ms Forde’s nephew, Bernard Forde Monaghan. Ms Forde had previously been given “the green light” by Dignitas and it had agreed to help her end her life at one of its clinics.

Ms O’Rorke told the travel agent the purpose of the trip and this information was passed onto gardaí who were waiting for the accused when she came to pick up the tickets. Gardaí did not make any arrests but they told Ms O’Rorke that it was an offence to assist in a suicide.

The accused later said in interview that following the Dignitas episode, Ms Forde remained determined to end her life but that she made Ms O’Rorke “take a back seat” so she wouldn’t get into trouble.

The accused said that another friend, Mary Lundy, took on a more active role and got in touch with another euthanasia organisation, Exit International, on Ms Forde’s behalf.

Ms O’Rorke told gardaí that Ms Forde had her send €400 via Western Union to a man in Mexico. She said she didn’t know what this was for at the time but didn’t question it as Ms Forde was always ordering things.

The accused said that Ms Forde later admitted to her that the money was for pentobarbital which she intended to use to end her life. Ms O’Rorke said that when the drugs arrived she “wouldn’t touch them with a ten foot barge poll” as she was afraid of the legal consequences.

The accused said the plan was for her and her husband to spend the night in a hotel, paid for by Ms Forde, on the night of June 5, 2011. She said that Mary Lundy was to sit with Ms Forde as she took the overdose in her apartment.

“I knew there was a good chance I would ring on Monday morning and she wouldn’t answer. I hoped she had the bravery to do it.” Ms O’Rorke said.

She said: “I told her if I rang on Monday and she answered, it was ok. There were other options.”

Asked by gardaí what she meant by other options, she replied: “A care home, Bernadette’s worst nightmare.”

A neighbour of Ms Forde’s, Elizabeth Cremin, told the trial that she received a phone call from Ms O’Rorke the next day asking her to check on Ms Forde. She found Ms Forde’s dead in her wheelchair with her feet up on the couch.

The accused told gardaí that Ms Lundy later told her that she sat with Ms Forde as she took the overdose and left the apartment as she was close to death.

Ms O’Rorke said Ms Lundy called her later that week and told her it was the hardest thing she ever had to do and “she didn’t know how she was going to go home and act normal in front of her sons.”

Prosecuting counsel Remy Farrell SC told the jury that the trial is not a forum for debate on the issue of assisted suicide and “such a debate, if it happens, will take place elsewhere.”

He said that the prosecution case “in a nutshell” is that Ms O’Rorke attempted to assist in the suicide of Ms Forde by booking the tickets to Zurich. He said it makes no difference that gardaí foiled the plan and that they never got to Switzerland.

Mr Farrell referred to a defence argument that 85 percent of people who travel to Dignitas don’t go through with an assisted suicide. He said that it is “entirely irrelevant” whether Ms Forde went through with the act when she got there and that the argument was “a red herring” thrown up by the defence to distract jurors.

The prosecuting counsel said he was “not for a moment” suggesting that Ms O’Rorke was badgering or encouraging her friend to commit suicide and that, on the contrary, she was trying to talk her out of it.

“Gail O’Rorke is an exceptionally decent person,” Mr Farrell said. “There can be no doubt that everything she did was informed out of loyalty, out of love, for Ms Forde. I want to be entirely clear that the prosecution do not for a moment suggest otherwise.”

Counsel said Ms O’Rorke’s claim that she did not know she was committing an offence when booking the tickets is not relevant as “ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

Dermott McGuinness SC, defending, said the prosecution are asking jurors to criminalise the conduct of “an exceptionally good woman.”

Counsel asked how Ms O’Rorke could have aided and abetted something that never happened. Ms Forde never travelled to Zurich and that even if she had, that doesn’t mean she would have committed suicide there.

“Flying to Switzerland isn’t suicide or attempted suicide,” he said.

Conor Gallagher