In a landmark case, the German Federal Court of Justice overturned the conviction of a lawyer who advised the family of a comatose elderly woman to cut off her feeding tube.
The case involved 71-year-old Erika Kuellmer who, after a cerebral haemorrhage in October 2002, slipped into a vegetative state and, confined to a nursing home, was fed through a tube for five years.
Although Kuellmer had expressed the wish not to be kept alive under such circumstances in a so-called living will, the home refused to let her die.
On the advice of her lawyer, Kuellmer's daughter finally snipped the feeding tube with a pair of scissors and she died two days later of "natural causes", according to an autopsy.
A lower court acquitted the daughter of killing her mother because she had "mistakenly" followed her lawyer's advice. But the attorney, Wolfgang Putz, was convicted and given a nine-month suspended sentence.
The federal tribunal found that Putz, a prominent patients' rights advocate, had acted legally and in the patient's interest because she had clearly expressed her wish not to be kept alive artificially.
Chief justice Ruth Rissing-van Saan had said when agreeing to hear the case that the court aimed to define the line between "killing" and "natural death".