Three years ago, one of those events occurred that suddenly and dramatically change the political landscape. Dr David Kelly, the UK’s leading weapons inspector, was found dead under a tree on Harrowdown Hill, Oxfordshire. An inquiry set up under Lord Hutton duly found that Dr Kelly committed suicide.
Today I challenge that conclusion. I do so on the basis that the medical evidence available simply cannot support it, that Dr Kelly’s own behaviour and character argues strongly against it, and that there were serious shortcomings in the way the legal and investigative processes set up to consider his death were followed.
After months of intensive enquiry, I reveal new evidence which:
· Shows that the alleged method of suicide chosen, far from being common, was in fact unique. Dr Kelly was the only person in the whole of the UK in 2003 deemed to have died in this way
· Reveals irregularities in the actions of the coroner, relating to the issuing death certificate.
· Proves that the pathologist chosen by the coroner to investigate the death had been on the Home Office approved list for just two years, less than almost all the other 43 approved pathologists.
· Raises questions about the actions taken by the police who attended Dr Kelly’s house when he was reported missing, actions which a very senior police officer told me were bizarre.
· Uncovers the cosy cabal of friends of Tony Blair who hand-picked Lord Hutton, and why, and who fixed the rules for his inquiry
The weeks leading up to Dr Kelly’s death in 2003 had been charged and eventful. In mid-March, British and American forces had invaded Iraq. Saddam Hussein was deposed and on May 1, US President George Bush declared ‘mission accomplished’, a claim that rings rather hollow now. Then, on May29, came the allegations, broadcast by the BBC, that the intelligence information about Iraq, which in an unprecedented move the Government had decided to release, had been ‘sexed up’ to make the case for war stronger, particularly with the assertion that Saddam could have chemical or biological ready to fire within 45 minutes.
No 10’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, went ballistic and launched a blistering attack on the BBC, determined in particular to wreck the career of Today programme reporter Andrew Gilligan. David Kelly had provided Mr Gilligan and others in the BBC with much of the ammunition for the claim that the dossier released by the Government to justify war had been presented in a way that stretched the available intelligence to breaking point. He, along with others in the know, was deeply unhappy about the added spin.
In the end, to further the Government’s vendetta with the BBC, the Ministry of Defence and No 10 acted to ensure Dr Kelly’s name became public. He was thrust into the unwelcome glare of publicity and made to appear in a Soviet-style televised appearance before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.
The standard explanation then was that Dr Kelly, a very private man, felt humiliated by this process and let down by the MoD, and he recognised that his actions in speaking to journalists would bring his career to an effective end. They would certainly prevent him from returning to Iraq to do what he did best and enjoyed most uncovering hidden weapons and weapons programmes, so making the world a safer place. And so, according to this view, he left his cottage in Southmoor, walked into the woods and took his own life through a combination of wrist injuries and an overdose of the painkiller co-proxamol. A personal tragedy but nothing more. Case closed.
Except I never subscribed to this conclusion. There were too many unanswered questions, none of which was resolved by the Hutton Inquiry As time has gone by, those questions have gnawed away at me. And I am not alone. In January 2004, three doctors – David Halpin, a specialist in trauma and orthopaedic surgery, Stephen Frost, a specialist in diagnostic radiology, and Searle Sennett, a specialist in anaesthesiology – voiced their doubts about the suicide verdict in a letter to The Guardian. They said Dr Kelly could not have killed himself in the way described to the Hutton Inquiry. Now, having resigned my frontbench role for the Lib Dems earlier this year, I have found the time to conduct my own investigation.
The first problematic area concerns the severed artery in Dr Kelly’s wrist. Those who are familiar with the human body will, if they choose to die this way, make an incision the length of the inside forearm because this leads to a very large loss of blood. Those unfamiliar with the body may cut across the wrist, thereby severing the radial artery. Instead, we are asked to believe that Dr Kelly managed to completely sever the ulnar artery, a minor artery of matchstick thickness to be found deep in the wrist on the little finger side of the hand, and protected by nerves and tendons.
It is difficult to believe Dr Kelly would have made this cut. It would have required unusual force to cut through the nerves and tendons, particularly with the gardening knife he had, and the process would have been painful. Even if he did somehow cut this artery himself; it is quite clear that this would not have killed him. I spoke to David Halpin, the former senior orthopaedic and trauma surgeon at Torbay Hospital and The Princess Elizabeth, Exeter. He told me that even the deepest cut here would not have caused death. He also told me that ‘a completely transected [severed] artery retracts immediately I and thus stops bleeding, even at a relatively high blood pressure’.
Then there is the evidence of the ambulance team who attended the scene where Dr Kelly was found. They told the Hutton Inquiry that the amount of blood found at the site and on Dr Kelly’s clothing was minimal and surprisingly small.
I contacted Dave Bartlett, the ambulance technician who, with paramedic Vanessa Hunt, formed the team that attended the scene. He told me last month that the two of them ‘stand by what we have already said 100 per cent’. Vanessa Hunt has said that, in her view ‘it is incredibly unlikely that he died from the wrist wound we saw’.
Could Dr Kelly nevertheless have died from the blood he lost? I tracked down Dr Sennett and his response was clear:
‘For a man the size of Dr Keily to die from haemorrhage, he would have to lose at least three litres of blood. I suggest that it would be impossible to lose a lethal amount of blood from an ulnar artery which had been cut in the manner described for Dr Kelly.’
Were these doctors right? I wanted to know how many people in the UK died in 2003 from injury to the ulnar artery. I eventually received a forrmal reply from the National Statistician, Karen Dunnell. The answer? One. Presumably Dr Kelly.
There is also the knife allegedly used for the purpose. This was a blunt gardening knife with a concave blade, a singularly inappropriate weapon to use. To cut through nerves and tendons with such a knife must have been difficult. Dr Kelly, with his scientific background and knowledge of the human body, could without doubt have found an easier way to commit suicide had he wished to do so.
It might be argued that this was a spontaneous suicide and that all he had with him was this particular knife, which he often carried. But that is contradicted by the presence of the coproxamol tablets, which, according to the official explanation, demonstrate premeditation. This circle simply cannot be squared.
Evidence presented at the Hutton Inquiry invites us to conclude that Dr Kelly removed three blister packs of these tablets, each containing ten tablets, from his house. The police say that they found 29 out of 30 tablets gone, implying therefore that Dr Kelly had consumed these. It strikes me as odd that Dr Kelly should apparently leave one of the 30 tablets in its place. Surely someone set on suicide will take the maximum dose available, not leave one? Of course this remaining tablet did present the police with a rather obvious clue.
Furthermore, Alexander Allan, the forensic toxicologist at the inquiry, considered that the amount of each drug component found in the blood was only a third of that which would normally be considered fatal. All that was found in Dr Kelly’s stomach was the equivalent of the fifth of one tablet. His stomach was virtually empty, which suggests that even if he did swallow 29 tablets, much would have been regurgitated, making it even less likely that these contributed in any significant way to his death.
Interestingly, those who knew Dr Kelly well maintain that he had an aversion to swallowing tablets.
What about the motive? Wasn’t Dr Kelly terribly depressed, potentially even suicidal? Those who knew him find that very difficult to accept.
Sarah Pape, his sister, is a consultant plastic surgeon. Referring to conversations with her brother before his death, she told the Hutton Inquiry:
‘In my line of work I deal with people who may have suicidal thoughts, and ought to be able to spot those, even in a telephone conversation. But I have gone over and over in my mind the two conversations we had and he certainly did not betray to me any impression that he was anything other than tired. He certainly did not convey to me that he was feeling depressed, and absolutely nothing that would have alerted me to the fact he might have been considering suicide.’
Of course, these were difficult times for Dr Kelly. He was under enormous pressure, had been thrust into the glare of the public spotlight, and had had a torrid time in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee on July 15, just two days before he went for his last walk. That much is known. Less well known is that his good humour and confidence had at least partly returned on July 16, when he gave evidence in private to the Intelligence and Security Committee. I have read the transcript of that meeting and it shows Dr Kelly laughing and even making jokes.
Then there are the e-malls he sent on the morning of July 17, the day’ of his disappearance. These were generally upbeat and talked enthusiastically about returning to Iraq.
So apparently were his phone calls, for after one to the Ministry of Defence, a flight to lraq was booked for him for the following week. One e-mail, however, did refer to ‘dark actors playing games’. Who they were, and what games they were playing, has yet to be established. Another factor that mitigates against the suicide theory is that one of Dr Kelly’s daughters was due to be married shortly and he was obviously looking forward to that.
Lastly, it should not be forgotten that Dr Kelly was a practicing member of the Baha’i faith, which strongly condemns the act of suicide.
Yet within 24 hours of the e-mails being sent, David Kelly was dead. We had lost the man who had probably done more than anyone else to reduce the threat to the world from biological and chemical weapons.
But with a cruel asymmetry; while Dr Kelly lay dead under a tree, Tony Blair, the mouthpiece of the now discredited 45-minute claim, was being feted by President Bush and being offered the rare honour of a Congressional Medal. The Prime Minister was on a plane from Washington to Tokyo when he was told of Dr Kelly’s death. His response was immediate. Before the journey was over, Lord Brian Hutton had been appointed to head an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Dr David Kelly’.
How was this breakneck-speed appointment made? Parliament had no say in this. With perfect political timing for the Prime Minister, the Commons had adjourned for its long summer recess at 4.55pm on July 17, just hours before Dr Kelly’s body was found. The decision to hold an inquiry; the remit given to it and the choice of the judge to chair it were all decisions for the Government. I have now had it officially confirmed that it was Blair’s old friend Charlie Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, who handpicked Lord Hutton, having discussed the matter first with the Prime Minister and formally consulted the Senior Law Lord.
Why choose Lord Hutton? In a parliamentary answer to me, Harriet Harman, the Minister at the Department for Constitutional Affairs, confirmed that he had not chaired any public inquiry before he was asked to undertake this most sensitive of tasks.
There is no suggestion that Lord Hutton is anything other than an independent person of integrity; but his record may have suggested to those choosing him that he would be likely to produce the right result.
In Northern Ireland, where he sat as a judge, he sentenced ten men to a total of 1,001 years’ imprisonment in 1984 on the word of a paid informer who was granted immunity from prosecution. As a senior barrister, he had also defended the Government of the day against allegations that internees in Northern Ireland had been tortured. More recently, he led the campaign against the extradition of General Pinochet back to Chile on the grounds that one of the five Law Lords involved in the case had links with the human-rights group Amnesty International.
As Sir Humphrey observed in an episode of [the BBC’s] ‘Yes, Minister’, you don’t choose a judge who can be leaned on. You choose one who doesn’t have to be.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that what should have been a rigorous investigation into the death of Dr Kelly turned out to be nothing of the sort.
First, the Lord Chancellor decided the inquiry should not, as expected, be held under the rules established by the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. The significance of this is that witnesses could not be subpoenaed. Nor did they have to give evidence under oath. The inquiry was therefore less rigorous and formal than a standard coroner’s inquest.
Then there are the actions of the Oxfordshire coroner himself, Nicholas Gardiner. His inquest was adjourned on the instruction of Lord Falconer. But I have unearthed the fact that a full death certificate was issued by the local registrar (following the instructions of the coroner) on August 18 – a week after the Hutton Inquiry started hearing evidence – giving explicit reasons for death.
I have a copy of that certificate. It cites haemorrhage and incised wounds to the left wrist, conclusions that are far from certain for the reasons given above.
When I asked Harriet Harman how it was that the coroner was able to establish cause of death when the Hutton Inquiry had barely started, she replied that he ‘was able to ascertain reasons for … death from the post-mortem report from the Home Office pathologist, Dr Hunt, and the toxicology report from Dr Allen [sic]. The death certificate, we now learn, was issued as a result of a meeting on August 14 between Dr Hunt, Dr Allan (or their representatives) and the coroner. A parliamentary question I asked has now revealed that this meeting followed an unusual, even irregular, meeting between Home Office officials and the coroner on August 11. Doubtless the officials were able to help guide the coroner on the way forward.
So what was the point of setting up an inquiry to look into the circumstances of Dr Kelly’s death when the facts had, it appears, already been decided? And where did that leave the normal inquest procedure, as even that wasn’t followed?
More pertinently still, the Coroners Rules required that ‘where an inquest has been adjourned for any reason’, an interim certificate of death shall be issued if needed. In effect, this is a certificate only to confirm death and allow the body to be buried. Clearly, the rule was not followed in this case.
I discussed the matter with Michael Powers QC, a leading expert on coroners’ law, who professed himself astonished that a full death certificate could have been issued in this way. So with the Hutton Inquiry barely started, the Oxfordshire coroner determines the cause of death without the normal inquest procedure, bases this on the severing of the ulnar artery, the only such cause of death in the whole of2003, and relies exclusively, it seems, on Dr Allan, who later would tell the inquiry that the level of coproxamol present was insufficient to cause death, and on the findings of pathologist Nicholas Hunt.
What of Dr Hunt? Who selected him for this task? The Oxfordshire coroner, it turns out. He chose him from a list of pathologists approved from the Home Office as being suitably qualified to be competent to investigate suspicious or violent deaths. I have secured a list of those so approved in 2003. It contains the names of 43 such pathologists, many with great experience, having been added to the list as far back as 1978. Dr Hunt was added to the list only in 2001. Just seven ofthe43 pathologists were added after him.
Now it may be that Dr Hunt has much to recommend him, but in a case as sensitive as this, wouldn’t it have been more normal to have selected someone with more experience, or indeed, as Michael Powers suggested to me, to have chosen two pathologists to work together?
The police operation was also a rather curious one. The files are all off-limits, locked up at Thames Valley Police headquarters, but an interesting nugget is to be found deep in the inquiry website. ‘Operation Mason’, as it was termed, was begun at 2.30pm on July 17, around nine hours before David Kelly was reported missing, and at least half an hour before he left his home to go on that last walk. No satisfactory explanation has ever been given for this astonishing foresight on the part of police.
Then there is the response after the call to the police was made. First there was the erection of a 45ft antenna in Dr Kelly’s garden. I have spoken to one of the most senior police officers in the UK who could offer no possible explanation for a structure this size and doubted if many police forces actually had such a piece of equipment.
He was also at a loss to explain why Dr Kelly’s wife Janice was turfed out of her house in the middle of the night to stand on the lawn for an extended period while a dog was put through the house. He called it ‘bizarre’.
At the Hutton Inquiry itself, conflicting evidence was piled on top of conflicting evidence with seemingly no attempt to get to the truth. Crucially, the position of the body seems in doubt, with those who found it – search-party volunteers Louise Holmes and Paul Chapman – insisting the body was sitting up or slumped against a tree, while DC Graham Coe later states it was flat on its back away from the tree.
Moreover, three items the volunteers swear were not present – the blunt knife, a watch and an opened bottle of Evian water – had mysteriously appeared by the body by the time DC Coe left the scene.
Then there are the basic questions that would occur to even a rookie police officer but which here went unasked, or at least unanswered.
Whose fingerprints were on the knife? Was there any DNA other than Dr Kelly’s to be found in the blood samples taken? Was Dr Kelly’s watch, which lay beside him, broken or intact? What time did it show? What were the last calls made to the mobile phone he had on him? We do not know and Lord Hutton does not ask.
But then Lord Hutton, tasked to examine the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly’s death, seemed peculiarly uninterested in these, giving every appearance of simply going through the motions. In this he was not alone. For the media too, the focus was firmly on the battle between the BBC and the Government. That focus may have taken the light off a much more important story.
After Hutton formally reported, the coroner would have been within his rights to reopen the inquest, but he chose not to do so, despite being made aware of the considerable doubts about the medical evidence. Many people find it hard to accept that Dr Kelly’s death was suicide, and the passage of time has only firmed up that doubt. I am conscious that some, particularly those who were close to him, will want to put all this behind them, to move on.
The reality, however, is that this episode is not going to go away. Perhaps Dr Kelly, renowned for his persistence, dedication and aptitude for systematic and logical questioning, would have understood that some of us cannot rest until the many important unanswered questions have finally been resolved.