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3RD LD: Doctor found guilty of killing patient, given suspended term.

YOKOHAMA, March 25 Kyodo


The Yokohama District Court on Friday sentenced a doctor at a hospital in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, to three years in prison, suspended for five years, for killing a 58-year-old comatose man with an injection of muscle relaxant in 1998.

Setsuko Suda, 50, was found guilty of taking the patient's life and neglecting her duties as a doctor. The court ruled that the patient's death from asphyxiation was caused by the muscle relaxant and that his family had not asked for the discontinuance of medical treatment.

The defense counsel for Suda, who pleaded not guilty in the district court trial, immediately filed an appeal against the ruling.

The defense team had argued she simply discontinued life-sustaining treatment for the terminally ill patient, which was not illegal, and she was responding to a request from the patient's family.

Presiding Judge Kenji Hirose said in delivering the ruling, ''The defendant did not explain fully about the life expectancy and medical condition (of the patient) but misunderstood that the family had approved (the discontinuance of treatment) and pulled out the tracheal tube for securing the airway.''

Hirose said Suda bears heavy responsibility for deviating from her duty as a doctor as the court determined it was too early for her to stop treating the patient as there appeared to be a possibility that he might recover.

But the judge also said the punishment, which was lighter than the five-year prison term the prosecutors demanded, was decided in consideration that the defendant took action thinking it would be for the sake of the patient and his family.

According to the ruling, Suda killed the patient by pulling out a tracheal tube and administering a muscle relaxant at Kawasaki Kyodo Hospital on Nov. 16, 1998, two weeks after the man was admitted with cardiac and respiratory arrest following a severe attack of bronchial asthma.

The prosecutors argued that the man was expected to live for a few more weeks and that this period was too long to justify euthanasia.

They said Suda acted according to her own views about the treatment of the terminally ill and that pulling out the tube and injecting muscle relaxant, which caused the final respiratory arrest, were equivalent to an act of murder.

Her defense counsel consistently denied intent to murder, arguing Suda ''received consent from the patient's family that there should not be an attempt to prolong his life.'' The family, however, has denied making such a request.

In addition, the defense said the muscle relaxant was administered intravenously in very small amounts and therefore did not cause his death.

The last time prosecutors in Japan took action in a mercy killing case was in 1991, when a doctor at Tokai University Hospital in Kanagawa Prefecture administered a lethal dose of potassium chloride to a 58-year-old terminally ill cancer patient.

In 1995, the Tokai University doctor was found guilty of murder and given a two-year prison term, suspended for two years. According to the judgment by the Yokohama District Court, doctors are allowed to conduct euthanasia only if the patient is suffering excruciating pain or in accordance with the patient's desire.

Suda's defense team had entered a not guilty plea, saying the case meets the conditions set in the Tokai University Hospital ruling.

But Hirose, adhering to the 1995 decision, said it is essential that the patient's death is imminent and that the patient understands his situation before the doctor may stop life-sustaining treatment. He also emphasized that priority should be placed on protecting life if the doctor cannot gain confirmation from the family about the patient's intentions.
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Publication:Japan Weekly Monitor
Date:Mar 28, 2005
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