Quebec man acquitted on assisted suicide charge

A Quebec man charged with helping his ailing uncle hang himself two years ago has been found not guilty of assisted suicide.
Maltais' nephew Stephan Dufour, shown in red, was acquitted on a charge of assisted suicide. ((CBC))
A Quebec man charged with helping his ailing uncle hang himself two years ago has been found not guilty of assisted suicide.

A jury acquitted Stéphan Dufour, 30, on a single charge of assisted suicide Friday morning, after three days of deliberation in the landmark case.

Dufour is the first Canadian to ever stand trial by jury for assisted suicide.

He was accused of assisting his uncle, Chantal Maltais, kill himself in his Alma home in September 2006.

Dufour admitted to installing rope, chain and a dog collar in a closet, which Maltais later used to kill himself.

Maltais, 49, suffered from polio and co-ordination difficulties that forced him to eat through a straw.

He was also confined to a wheelchair, and in the last few years repeatedly expressed to various family members his desire to end his life, according to testimony during Dufour's trial.

Dufour was tearful while recalling while on stand how his uncle often begged him to help him die.

"He asked me every day to help him commit suicide," Dufour told the court.

"I didn't want to do it, but I wasn't able to take it anymore. I felt like I was in prison."

Dufour had pleaded not guilty to the charge on the grounds he was acting out of compassion for his uncle.

Emotional trial ends well for family

Dufour's mother, aunts and cousins broke into tears and shouted out as the jury read out its verdict in Alma's courthouse Friday morning.

Chantal Maltais, 49, committed suicide by hanging himself. ((Journal du Quebec/CBC))
Some members of the jury also cried as the emotionally charged trial came to an end.

Dufour had no visible reaction, staring ahead blankly as his verdict was read. He had no comment for reporters as he exited the courthouse.

His relatives said the two-year legal case had taken a toll on everyone, and caused significant strain within his immediate family. 

Dufour's mother, Nicole Maltais, described him as a bird with broken wings.

She also had harsh words for her sister — Dufour's aunt — who first told authorities he may have had something to do with Chantal Maltais's death.

"I simply want her to disappear from our lives," Maltais said in French. "I'm not angry. I simply want her to go away."

Stéphan Dufour's cousin, Yannick Dufour, said he was relieved, but called on the government to review assisted suicide. 

"The government needs to get its act together," he said in French. "Life doesn't belong to anyone but ourselves."

"We don't let animals suffer," Nicole Maltais added. "Why do we let people suffer?"

It's not clear whether the Crown will appeal the verdict.

Conservative MP Jean-Pierre Blackburn acknowledged that assisted suicide is a "difficult debate."

He said he hopes that if Canadian laws are ever reviewed and changes voted on in the House of Commons, that MPs would be free to vote "according to their beliefs."

"It's society's debate to have," but with no easy answers, said Blackburn, who represents the Lac St-Jean riding that includes Alma.

While it is not illegal to commit suicide in Canada, it is against the law to help someone complete the act.

The maximum penalty for assisted suicide is 14 years.

With files from the Canadian Press