A Melbourne judge has shown mercy to an elderly man, saying he acted out of love when he attempted to kill himself and his wife of 50 years “to end her suffering”.
Joseph Sugar, 88, pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of his wife Heather, who he described as the “love of his life”, and who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
The court heard he injected insulin into himself and his wife just days before they were going to be separated in an aged care facility in December 2018.
“You believed that the insulin that you had injected would result in peaceful deaths for both of you,” Justice Elizabeth Hollingworth said.
But they both awoke the next day.
The court was told police found torn pieces of paper at the retirement village where the couple lived.
One of the notes was addressed to the pair’s children.
“I’m sorry to do this to you … I have decided on my own will to pump some insulin into myself and your mother, hoping that it will solve our problems. I would prefer to end this peacefully. Love to you,” the note read.
Sugar was not in court and listened in to the sentence via video link. He could not be seen on screen as Justice Hollingworth addressed him.
“Where offending has occurred not because of anger or greed or other base motives, but rather from love for the victim and the desire to end their suffering, a modified approach to the issue of remorse is appropriate,” Justice Hollingworth said.
“In the circumstances of this case, I am moved to exercise mercy and to impose a non-custodial sentence.”
Separation after 50 years of marriage ‘likely catalyst’ for offending
The court heard the pair had a loving and supportive relationship during their five decades of marriage.
Together they ran motels in NSW and Victoria and had two children.
The court was told Mrs Sugar had a history of dementia and Alzheimer’s in her family and was concerned about herself after watching her parents suffering from the illnesses.
The court heard she started showing signs of memory loss in 2010 and would forget things like picking up the grandchildren from school.
By 2013 she was formally diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
During a plea hearing earlier in June, the court was told in the six months before the crime Mrs Sugar’s condition had deteriorated to the degree where she was not able to recognise anybody and could not look after herself.
At that time the family agreed they would both move to an aged care centre, where Mrs Sugar would live in the secure unit.
Prosecutor Justin Lewis told the hearing “it was this separation after approximately 50 years of marriage that was the likely catalyst for the accused’s offending”.
During the earlier hearing, the court was told Sugar initially told paramedics that his wife had injected herself and that he had not had his dose of insulin that day.
Mrs Sugar’s condition was initially life-threatening but she later recovered.
Daughter doesn’t feel like ‘victim of a crime’
During the plea hearing, their daughter Audrey Marriner told the court her mother had been a pilot and a businesswoman.
“Mum was dignified, immaculate and always busy, even when she stopped working,” Ms Marriner said.
“I don’t feel like mum or I are victims of a crime.
“We are victims of a horrific illness which impacts entire families.
“Perhaps our little family did not cope with it very well.”
She told the court she did not think her mother would want the court case against their father.
“There is no right way to cope when you are faced with a future where you know you will lose your dignity and quality of life. Where the people you love, including young children, will watch you decline,” she said.
“That they’ll see you soil yourself, scream and shout and terrify them until the medication calms you.”
David Sugar, the couple’s son, expressed his “immense sorrow at the stress that my dad was under leading up to the event and the lack of support I could provide while I was living so far away”.
He acknowledged how exhausted his father was in caring for his mother, while also dealing with his own medical issues.
“I believe he was at the end of his rope and made a terrible, spur-of-the-moment decision that I am certain that he would never repeat,” he said.
Ms Marriner thanked her father for “showing David and I how to be a selfless and loving man, for always striving to do his best and make the right decisions”.
Justice Hollingworth sentenced Sugar to a two-year “adjourned undertaking” of good behaviour.
“A sentence must be both just and merciful,” she said.
Mrs Sugar now lives in the secure unit of an aged care centre. Her husband can visit her only under supervision.