Three years after the apparent suicide of the weapons expert who blew the whistle on the ‘dodgy dossier’ that took us into the Iraq War, we reveal how the Government still avoids answering crucial points about his death
IT WAS the late summer of 2003 and all eyes were on the Royal Courts of Justice in central London. Day after day, witnesses to the Hutton Inquiry revealed how Tony Blair’s fixers had pressed the intelligence services to deliver the reports he wanted in order to justify the invasion of Iraq.
Lord Hutton was also set to piece together the final hours of Dr David Kelly, the internationally respected weapons expert whose shock death had triggered the inquiry.
Elsewhere, a less transparent process was under way. On August 11, 10 days after the Hutton Inquiry opened, Home Office officials were holding a secret meeting with Nicholas Gardiner, the Oxfordshire coroner.
It was he who had begun the formal inquest into Dr Kelly’s death following the discovery of the body on July 18.
The inquest had then been adjourned on the orders of the Lord Chancellor – the Prime Minister’s exflatmate Lord Falconer – because establishing what happened was now the remit of Hutton.
But Mr Gardiner, based in the village of Cumnor near Oxford, was continuing his work anyway.
Contrary to normal practice for such matters, he was doing it in private.
On August 14, he met the pathologist who performed the post mortem and the toxicologist who examined Dr Kelly’s body for drug poisoning – weeks before either man was due to testify to Hutton.
Then, on August 18, he issued a death certificate.
A full month before the public inquiry was due to hear any of the evidence from the beauty spot where the 59-year-old father-of-three had apparently committed suicide, Gardiner registered a precise cause of death. In other words, the case was effectively closed before it had been opened.
This revelation, apparently now conceded by Constitutional Affairs Minister Harriet Harman under pressure from Lib Dem MP Norman Baker, has given further weight to the concerns of a growing group of senior medical and legal professionals – previously aired in the Daily Express nearly two years ago – that the suicide conclusion cannot be justified on the available evidence.
“I find it most peculiar that the Oxfordshire coroner felt able to issue a full certificate giving reasons for death without taking formal evidence from those who were able to help determine the causes of death, ” says Mr Baker, who last weekend became the highest-profile figure to challenge the conclusion of the Hutton Inquiry that Dr Kelly killed himself.
“The coroner issued the certificate when the inquiry set up to find the causes of death had barely started, and when his own inquest had been suspended. I also find it disturbing that the coroner should have met Home Office officials shortly before deciding to issue a certificate.That seems to border on the improper.”
Questions are also raised by Michael Powers QC, a leading expert on coroner’s law.
“There is provision for a coroner to issue an interim death certificate confirming that the person has died, where the precise cause of death will be established later.
I would have thought that, given the circumstances, issuing a full death certificate giving the cause of death is a bit unusual, ” he says.
Dr Kelly was the country’s foremost expert on the dismantling of biological weapons and regarded as having safeguarded the future of the planet with his painstaking work decommissioning lethal stocks built up by the former Soviet Union.
He had been honoured in 1996 for his services to the UN and the UK, and was being considered for a knighthood.
He was unknown to the public until he was revealed as the whistleblower in the row about the Government’s “dodgy dossier” on Iraq.
He admitted briefing BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan, who had accused the New Labour spin machine of inserting false information into the dossier to boost the case for invasion.
When Dr Kelly told his bosses at the Ministry of Defence that he had spoken to Gilligan, he was assured his anonymity would be preserved.
Instead, he was thrown to the wolves.
Two days after a humiliating appearance before a committee of MPs, he went for an afternoon walk near his Oxfordshire home, and never returned.
He was found the next morning in circumstances which suggested he had committed suicide. There was no sign of struggle.
His left wrist had been slashed with a gardening knife he had owned since boyhood and he had apparently taken an overdose of painkillers prescribed to his wife Janice.
She testified that, on the morning of his death, she was physically sick when she saw how desperate and “shrunk” her husband looked.
After hearing the evidence and seeing only a fraction of the witness statements taken by the police, Lord Hutton concluded that Dr Kelly had taken his own life.
He said the principal cause of death was bleeding from the wound to his wrist, accelerated by an overdose of Coproxamol tablets and a pre-existing case of coronary artery disease. Mr Gardiner had the option to resume the inquest once Hutton had issued his report but chose not to do so – not least because Mrs Kelly and her three daughters have repeatedly said they are satisfied with the cause of death.
However, many objective observers are not. A number of medical professionals and others have said that the cut to Dr Kelly’s wrist had severed the smallest artery in the wrist, which in their view could not cause death. The paramedics said there was much less blood than they would have expected to see from a spurting artery.
The toxicologist admitted there was not enough Coproxamol in Dr Kelly’s system to kill him.
While it might look as if Dr Kelly had been trying to kill himself, the method he had chosen, experts argued, would not have succeeded.
Another oddity was the position of the body, said by the searchers who found it to be leaning against a tree but which later ended up lying flat some distance away.
Lord Hutton was satisfied the different witnesses were describing the same sight but dissenters complained that Hutton did not hear evidence under oath and had no power to subpoena witnesses or have them rigorously cross-examined.
Mr Baker says that a proper inquest would have more likely got to the bottom of such puzzles.
“There are the basic questions that went unasked, or at least unanswered, ” he says.
“Whose fingerprints were on the knife? Was there any DNA other than Dr Kelly’s 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 did not ask.”
Michael Powers says part of the problem was that the overwhelming focus of interest was the political background to the affair, such as the alleged “sexing-up” of the dossier and the question of whether the Prime Minister had lied in taking the country to war.
“I have a feeling that it was taken for granted that this was suicide and it was just reaffirmed by Hutton that it was, ” he says. “But in law there is a presumption against suicide.
You have to prove beyond reasonable doubt that is what happened.
On the evidence I have seen there is reasonable doubt, so there should be an open verdict.”
He stresses this does not mean there was a conspiracy to kill Dr Kelly.
“There is no doubt that he may have committed suicide.
The question is, can we be sure that he did?”
The irregular behaviour of the Oxfordshire coroner merely adds to the sense that all is not as it should be – particularly since requests for clarification are stonewalled.
The Daily Express asked Mr Gardiner for an assurance that the proper procedure was followed in all respects over the issuing of a full death certificate.
He has yet to provide one.
Mr Baker has drawn a similar blank.
When he asked Ms Harman why the coroner issued a full death certificate barely a week after Lord Hutton began taking evidence, she said: “The Hutton Report obviously ranged much more widely, which is one of the reasons why a further inquest by the Oxfordshire coroner was not necessary.”
When Mr Baker asked what was discussed when the Home Office officials met the coroner, Ms Harman confirmed the date of the meeting but avoided any mention of the content.
The Government has also refused a number of applications under the Freedom of Information Act to see documents relating to the case.
This level of evasion increases speculation about the only British individual not to have an inquest into his unexplained death – despite the fact that the pathologist who carried out the post mortem now says he would be more comfortable if the inquest were re-opened.
Mr Baker says that a man of Dr Kelly’s stature deserves to have his death fully investigated but the country also has a right to know precisely what happened in an incident central to one of the most important episodes of recent British history.
“We owe it to him and to ourselves, ” he says. “So far, I haven’t speculated on what might have happened but I will carry on asking questions until we can be sure we know the truth.”