Hazel McHaffie

serial killer

Murder most foul

Twenty years ago a much loved and respected doctor was arrested. He was found to be  the world’s most prolific serial killer of all time (250 victims over 30 years and counting) . His name has become synonymous with evil: Dr Harold Shipman.

Back then the culture in this country was one of respect and trust for doctors, and in the small working-class town of Hyde near Manchester, this particular GP was revered for his dedication and compassion. He would visit vulnerable patients at all hours, stay with them during their last breaths, personally phone their relatives to break the news. When investigators came snooping the locals resisted their suggestions of sinister malpractice fiercely.

Oh yes, they knew lots of elderly people in his practice died – they even jokingly called him Dr Death – but it never entered their heads that this was in any way untoward. They were just grateful that he cared enough to be with these neighbours during their last hours on this earth. He seemed invincible.

And he believed he was. After all, he’d survived a report to the General Medical Council (GMC) relating to his personal drug addiction, he’d successfully forged prescriptions and wills, acquired legacies from patients, as well as conning the good people in his practice. When he was questioned by the police, he displayed breathtaking arrogance and insolence, spinning absurd stories, even at one point sitting with his back to his interrogators.

Photo courtesy of Photolia

Listening to the harrowing testimony of those caught up in this horrific case, it’s not difficult to understand the despair of the policeman who took his sheaf of evidence to the GMC back in 1976, twenty three years before the doctor was finally tried, only to be waved away without a hearing himself: this august medical body deeming Harold Shipman ‘no danger to the public‘, just needing some rehabilitation. If only!

In the end the law enforcement officers investigated a total of 900 deaths spanning decades; they exhumed numerous bodies; they traced his killings back to 1972; they are almost certain that the estimate of 250 deaths by poisoning is a conservative one. But Shipman never admitted his guilt, never expressed remorse; a senior forensic psychiatric said he felt none. Imprisoned for life he waited only till he had assured his wife Primrose the best settlement possible, before, on the eve of his 58th birthday, in 2004, taking the last life: his own.

Twenty years ago, but it is still as vivid as it was then. Some crimes are indelible. I was mesmerised by the documentary shown on independent television last Thursday evening. We all carry burdens from the past, but they can be as nothing compared with those borne by local friends of the ‘good doctor’, nurses who saw but didn’t dare protest, policemen whose hands were tied, relatives who thanked the doctor who had killed their loved ones. If you’ve ever been betrayed by someone you trusted, you’ll know it’s a peculiarly deep hurt.

I’m in the business of medical ethics. This story is way, way outside my scope. Had I written it into fiction no one would have believed it. It would have sunk without trace; Shipman never will.

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Innocent until proven guilty

Imagine you are sitting in court … a stern faced judge is condemning the young man in the dock to life imprisonment, to serve a minimum of 30 years. He’s only in his 30s. He’ll be almost 70 when – if – he is ever released. Horrendous. And that young man is … your son. Already the hate mail is arriving, your own private life is becoming public, you are personally reviled and shunned … for giving birth to a monster.

Life imprisonmentNow imagine that you are totally, utterly convinced that your boy is innocent of the alleged crime. You know him, his nature, his attitudes. He’s chosen nursing as his career; he’s spent his life caring for people; he’s incapable of hurting anyone. And yet … the evidence is spelled out by the lawyers and police: what he said; what he did; the links between him and so many deaths in mysterious circumstances. The prosecution describe him as a ‘thoroughly evil and dangerous man … arrogant and manipulative’ – a fiend who deliberately and maliciously injected insulin into elderly patients in his care. The press liken him to Harold Shipman, but in this case he’s been stopped in his tracks after just four murders, possibly five. The jury with no vested interest either way, listen carefully, objectively, to the evidence, and they conclude that he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt.

You watch your boy being taken away to serve this terrible sentence, your precious son locked away with criminals, his life and future in tatters.

Small wonder that you don’t accept this verdict … that you seek an alternative explanation. There must be one. Years pass. Eventually there’s a new investigation. The enquiry reveals that there is no direct forensic evidence connecting your son to any of those deaths; that there was no trace of insulin in any of the patients allegedly murdered; that tests used in evidence were invalid; that mathematical calculations reveal it is unfeasible and unrealistic that the level of insulin needed to effect these deaths could have been injected; that naturally-occurring hypoglycaemia happens more often than was thought in the frail elderly non-diabetic sick patient; that eminent experts do not believe there were any murders committed at all. Indeed, new data suggest that these four women died from a condition called insulin auto immune syndrome.

It looks as if your boy has spent six years waiting for his case to come to court, a further six years in prison, for a crime he did not commit. That he has lost his career, his good name, his freedom, and yet he has done nothing wrong. That he only came to attention because he predicted the death of an old lady (something nurses often do), and he just happened to be on duty when these four people died.

A novel I’ve dreamed up? No – although I’d have been jolly pleased with the plotting if I had made it up! No, it was a case discussed on BBC 1 on Monday evening: The Innocent Serial Killer? At once fascinating, frightening and disturbing. Scottish nurse Colin Norris was arrested in 2002. His case came to court in 2008. He is still in prison. His mother has actually lived through this nightmare scenario I’ve just described. She’s living it still.

The results of the BBC investigation were mesmerizing. I found myself identifying with everyone concerned – as a patient, as a grieving relative, as a nurse, as a mother, as a juror, as a writer. And I was appalled. I wanted to march into Durham prison and demand his instant release at least until his case is reheard. OK, I don’t know him; I can’t vouch for him personally; and this programme was presenting a certain line in evidence; but there does seem to be more than enough doubt over this conviction to suggest a possible – maybe even probable – miscarriage of justice, and don’t we Brits pride ourselves on our scrupulously fair innocent-until-proven-guilty system? Besides, there but for the grace of God go I. I’ve predicted deaths. I’ve been on duty when a spate of deaths has occurred. I’ve joked about jinxing the ward. It’s what nurses do. It’s how they survive in a workplace where the grim reaper stalks the corridors.

Stranger than fiction indeed and much much more tense and terrifying.

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