A woman found guilty of the manslaughter of her non-verbal and bedridden 92-year-old mother, Dr Mary White, at a southern NSW nursing home on 5 August 2018, has walked free from the Supreme Court sitting in Goulburn.
Barbara Mary Eckersley, 69, avoided the maximum penalty of 25 years’ imprisonment and was sentenced to a two-year community correction order (CCO) beginning on 20 May 2021.
In handing down the sentence, Justice Robert Beech-Jones said the only options for sentencing were imprisonment or a CCO.
This follows the removal of intensive correction orders for manslaughter in the NSW Government’s September 2018 Criminal Justice Reform Package, a previously applicable sentence served in the community but under the strict supervision of Community Corrections.
The two-year CCO means Ms Eckersley will live freely in the community so long as she doesn’t commit any offences during the two years, appears before the court if requested, and sees a psychologist for her depression.
Justice Beech-Jones said Ms Eckersley was “overwhelmingly unlikely to re-offend” and had already spent nearly three years “haunted by her involvement with her mother’s death”.
An act of love, but not euthanasia
Throughout the court case, Ms Eckersley was portrayed as a doting daughter who had provided around-the-clock care for Dr White, an award-winning Australian paleobotanist, for two years at her Bundanoon home after she was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2014.
Ms Eckersley also visited Dr White nearly every day after she was admitted to the Warrigal aged care facility in Bundanoon following a major stroke that impacted her speech and paralysed one side of her body in 2016.
The court heard how Ms Eckersley was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder after taking care of Dr White and seeing her condition deteriorate at Warrigal.
This depression contributed to Ms Eckersley’s view that Warrigal was providing Dr White with inadequate care and her inability to recall feeding her mother the drugs until 8 August 2018 when she handed herself in to Moss Vale Police Station.
Ms Eckersley admitted she fed her mother temazepam and ‘green dream’, or pentobarbitone, in a soup, to reduce her pain and distress, but denied ever intending to kill her.
A jury found Ms Eckersley not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter following a three-week trial, during which a toxicology report, presented as evidence, showed the amount of ‘green dream’ in Dr White’s system was lethal.
Justice Beech-Jones said he believed Ms Eckersley had “convinced herself that she did not intend to kill her mother”.
He said Ms Eckersley had fed her mother ‘green dream’, a drug she used to euthanise injured animals while involved in wildlife care in Canberra 20 years ago, to “end her mother’s suffering by ending her life”.
However, he recognised Ms Eckersley’s ability to make sound judgements was impaired by the depression she was experiencing at the time of her mother’s death.
“This was not a well-organised killing,” said Justice Beech-Jones. “It was an act of love. It was also a product of impaired judgement.”
During the trial, Dr White’s doctors told jurors how Ms Eckersley and her husband, Richard, had discussed euthanasia during consultations, which the couple denied.
Justice Beech-Jones also disputed this evidence, saying there was no reference to those conversations in the doctors’ notes.
He said the case was not about euthanasia because Ms Eckersley had not made the decision to kill her mother because she was pro-euthanasia, but rather as an “act of despair”.
Justice Beech-Jones said he believed Ms Eckersley only decided to end her mother’s life on the day she fed her the ‘green dream’.
A ‘loving’ mother
Ms Eckersley told the court Dr White was a “very loving mother”.
During her career as a paleobotanist, Dr White worked for the Bureau of Mineral Resources analysing plant fossils, and she became a part-time curator of fossils at the Australian Museum in Sydney after her husband died.
She became famous for writing several scientific books, including After the Greening: The Browning of Australia and Listen … Our Land is Crying. She was awarded four honorary doctorates.
Ms Eckersley produced the maps and diagrams in all but two of Dr White’s books.
“Our relationship had always been very good,” Ms Eckersley told jurors. “We worked very well together and enjoyed each other’s company.”
Speaking outside the court on behalf of Ms Eckersley, solicitor Adrian McKenna said the accused was “relieved to be walking out” of the court.
“She has made it through to the other side [and is] grateful to be moving on with her life,” he said.