26 April 2021

Murder trial hears how Dr Mary White was often in pain and distressed

| Hannah Sparks
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Barbara and Richard Eckersley

Murder accused Barbara Eckersley and her husband, Richard. Photo: Hannah Sparks.

Award-winning Australian paleobotanist and environmentalist Dr Mary White was often found by relatives in pain and distressed, sometimes fallen from her bed or chair at a southern NSW nursing home, according to court testimony from her daughter, who is accused of murder.

Barbara Mary Eckersley, 69, who allegedly killed 92-year-old Dr White by feeding her temazepam and ‘green dream’, or pentobarbitone, in a soup at the Warrigal aged care facility in Bundanoon on 5 August, 2018, gave evidence at her trial on Tuesday, 20 April.

Entries made by Ms Eckersley in a diary kept at her non-verbal and bedridden mother’s bedside, read in the Supreme Court, sitting in Goulburn, recalled multiple times when Warrigal staff took up to 50 minutes to respond to Ms Eckersley’s calls for help for her mother.

“Mary sitting upright, obviously in a lot of discomfort, possibly with wind. Called for a nurse and waited and waited for about 50 minutes,” the court heard Ms Eckersley wrote in the diary.

Another entry said: “Mary in bed looking awful, shaking, convulsing, called registered nurse.”

The court also watched a video recorded by Ms Eckersley of Dr White, less than a month before her death, wiping away tears from her eye while showing signs of discomfort.

Ms Eckersley had openly expressed her concerns about her mother’s care to Warrigal staff, the court heard.

“Daily care from the carers was good – they were always very gentle and careful with her,” Ms Eckersley told jurors. “My real problem was with the medications. I just felt, as we recorded in the book, there were many times she was not pain-free or agitation free.”

Ms Eckersley said she had organised for her mother to move to an aged care facility in Coffs Harbour after a “distressing” case conference with Warrigal staff.

“Very soon into the meeting, Dr [Indran Rajendra] said, ‘There’s nothing we can do for your mother. If you don’t like it, you can move her to another facility.’

“I was flabbergasted and lost for words. I felt abandoned and betrayed.”

Dr Mary White standing at front door of home

Barbara Eckersley is accused of murdering her mother, Dr Mary White (pictured), an award-winning Australian paleobotanist. Photo: Brett Dolsen.

Crown prosecutor Paul Kerr previously told jurors that Ms Eckersley fed her mother the temazepam she had for insomnia and the ‘green dream’ she used to euthanise injured animals while involved in wildlife care in Canberra 20 years ago because she was unhappy about the level of care her mother was receiving.

Ms Eckersley fed her mother dinner almost every day and previously told police she had administered the drugs.

However, Ms Eckersley’s barrister, Kieran Ginges, previously argued the drugs were administered to ensure Dr White wasn’t in pain or distressed while transitioning to the new aged care facility.

According to notes written by Ms Eckersley’s former solicitor, Sam Rowland, and tendered in court, Ms Eckersley told Mr Rowland “she did not have any intention to end her mother’s life but felt abandoned by the doctors and wanted to make her mother feel comfortable for one night”.

Ms Eckersley told jurors 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 became a part-time curator of fossils at the Australian Museum in Sydney after her husband died.

Dr White became famous for writing several scientific books, including After the Greening: The Browning of Australia and Listen… Our Land is Crying.

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.”

In 2003, Dr White moved to a property south of Port Macquarie where she rented cabins and hoped to run an environmental retreat.

However, by 2013, Dr White’s memory had significantly deteriorated and said it was her wish to live with Ms Eckersley and her husband, Richard Eckersley.

In 2014, Dr White was diagnosed with vascular dementia and moved to live with the couple. In 2016, she experienced a significant stroke that impacted her speech and paralysed one side of her body. She subsequently moved to Warrigal.

Jurors will decide if Ms Eckersley is guilty of murder or manslaughter.

The trial continues.

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Penny Hackett7:51 pm 26 Apr 21

The question is, why was this poor woman not properly medicated? If she was in pain and agitated then it is no wonder that a loving daughter might try to give additional drugs to give her mother some relief and respite.

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