A pensioner who tried to smother his dying father with a cushion because he wanted to end his suffering has walked free from court, after the judge suspended his 18 month jail sentence for two years.
Downpatrick Crown Court Judge Geoffrey Miller QC told 67-year-old James Weir while there was “no doubt” his offence crossed the custody threshold, he was suspending the sentence, "having regard to the exceptional circumstances surrounding the case and bearing in mind that regardless of your intention at the time, the actual degree of harm was slight and had no bearing on your father’s death."
The judge said while it was a “tragic case", Weir’s actions in smothering his unconscious father with a cushion had been, “deliberate and clearly carried out with the intention of killing his father, something he may well have achieved had the nurse not arrived in the room.“
Weir, from Manor Street in Belfast, had pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of his father James Weir on 24 November 2018.
The court heard that Mr Weir Snr, who was 90 at the time and was a resident at Blair House Care home in Ards, was approaching “the end of his life” when his son tried to kill him.
Prosecuting counsel Laura Ievers said the defendant, who along with his brother had drunk a litre of whiskey and ten Guinness overnight as they sat watching their father, had been momentarily alone in the room when a nurse came in and saw him “holding a cushion over his father’s face.”
As the nurse took the cushion from him, “he said he was sorry she had to witness it but he thought it was the right thing to do for his father and that he couldn’t see him suffer any longer,” the lawyer told the court, describing how Weir Jnr “visibly distressed” at the time.
A statement from the defendant’s sister also indicated he was “shaking and crying” at the care home when he told her “he tried to smother their father,” said Mrs Ievers who revealed that same statement outlined how their father had previously “asked the family to help him die”, a subject he had apparently raised “a number of times" in the preceding years.
Mr Weir Snr was taken to hospital and examined as a precaution and although he had not sustained any serious injury, he passed away two weeks after the incident.
Arrested and interviewed, Weir Jnr told police he couldn’t remember his dad saying anything in the past that “would’ve promoted him to act in the way he did”, but claimed he could not remember what had happened in the room.
Mrs Ievers told Judge Miller the admission to attempted murder “is a welcome plea in what is a difficult and sensitive case”.
Describing the case as "tragic and exceptional", defence QC Niall Hunt said he had been unable to find any other case like it which would’ve helped to guide the court.
He said Weir and his father had not just been father and son but, having worked together for many years in the Ormeau bakery, their relationship had been “much more than that, they were very, very close friends.”
“He has very loving and caring memories of his father,” said the senior lawyer, outlining that as Weir sat beside his dying father in the care home, he had been thinking about specific memories of walking along the Shankill Road with his dad to watch Linfield in the season they won seven trophies.
“On this particular night, when things were so tragic and emotional, that’s one of the abiding memories that he had in his mind,” said Mr Hunt, adding that Mr Weir Snr had deteriorated from a once “very proud, strong fit man” to a man who “could nothing for himself.”
Indeed, the week before the incident he had discharged from the Ulster Hospital “with a do not resuscitate sign on his bed".
Mr Hunt said the attitude of the rest of the family, the defendant’s brother and sister and extended family, was evidenced by the fact that so many of them came to court with him each time the case was on the list and "shows their understanding for what has tragically happened".
“You can see that he reacted in an emotional way to seeing his father dying,” said Mr Hunt, “all he wanted to do was ease his fathers pain and preserve his dignity as much as he could.”
Echoing Mrs Ievers sentiments that it is a “difficult and sensitive case”, Judge Miller told the court Weir had admitted an intention to kill his dad and “there can be no more grave an admission for a person to make.”
He said while he had to “mark the rejection of society” of such an admission, it was his duty to look at the totality of the circumstances.
The judge said it was clear their was no animosity felt towards the defendant by his family indeed, their attendance at court show the support and sympathy the feel towards him.
“Very few of us know how our lives are going to end and any of us who have witnessed, as this defendant did, a parent once so vigorous, coming to the conclusion of their lives in a situation such as this - it’s something that none of us wish for our own parents, our loved ones and not something we would wish for ourselves,” said Judge Miller.
Suspending the jail sentence, he warned Weir that if he reoffended he would have to serve the 18 months but added he had “little or no doubt such an eventuality will arise.”
Outside the court, Weir was hugged by his clearly emotional family and friends.