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The New Alchemy: Turning Murder into Suicide
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Nicholas Hunt, the forensic pathologist who testified before Lord Hutton in September, is one of only 35 Home Office-accredited pathologists in the UK. We might imagine, being appointed by the British government, Dr Hunt would be of the highest calibre, displaying impeccable professional judgement. Television news and drama, with their frequent references to "DNA evidence", bolster a view of the forensic pathologist as "never wrong". However, this article highlights a number of recent cases where flawed assessments by Home Office pathologists have given rise to unsafe convictions, and explores how professional fallibility may have led to similarly erroneous interpretations from Dr Hunt regarding the death of Dr David Kelly. It also raises the more sinister possibility that Hunt's interpretations were weighted deliberately with the express purpose of convincing us this was suicide.
Errors and Omissions
One case found to be unsafe as a result of a pathologist's mistake was that of Stuart Lubbock, who died in the swimming-pool of the UK entertainer, Michael Barrymore. A BBC report on the case reads as follows:
"A police investigation into the death of a man in Michael Barrymore's swimming pool may have been hampered by a Home Office pathologist's failure to spot crucial evidence...... Dr Heath was brought in when Stuart Lubbock was found dead at the entertainer's Essex home in April last year. He concluded the 31-year-old had drowned. But three other pathologists told the inquest into his death this month that marks on his face indicated he died of asphyxia, possibly from having an arm clamped round his throat during a violent sexual assault."
Two further cases showed Dr Heath's findings to be wrong. Steven Taylor, a traveller, spent 10 months on remand facing a murder-charge after Dr Heath said he had strangled his wife. But two other pathologists concluded that marks on Beatrice Taylor's neck were caused by procedures carried out by a mortuary technician. Kenneth Fraser was accused of killing his girlfriend after Dr Heath maintained that she had been hit on the head with a plank of wood. Fraser was released after four other pathologists found she had fallen downstairs. Serious errors like these are not infrequent.
In previous cases Dr Heath was also criticised for omissions A further case where a crucial omission was made was that of Sally Clark, wrongfully accused of murdering her two children and sent to prison for life. Her conviction was overturned on appeal after it was discovered that Alan Williams, another Home Office pathologist, had deliberately withheld cerebral spinal fluid test results from the original trial. These indicated one of Clark's children had had bacterial meningitis. Dr Williams, the holder of a distinction award which boosts his salary by an extra £27,000, is currently under investigation by the General Medical Council.
Astonishingly, it is not a question of just a few bad apples in the barrel - the very system which investigates professional incompetence and malpractise is itself flawed. A Guardian article relates how, after a lengthy investigation, Paula Lannas, a Home Office pathologist, went before a police advisory board in 2001, accused of botching post-mortem examinations.
Paula Lannas's methods of investigation were described as "demonstrating a continuing pattern of inadequate and unsatisfactory examinations and breaches of accepted forensic pathology practice". When the board failed to reach a conclusion due to a 1"conflict of interest or lack of impartiality" -- meaning that members of the board did not feel comfortable passing judgement on a colleague - the case collapsed. Senior Home Office forensic pathologist Nat Cary observed wryly, "It may be a cynical view, but I think they want to keep the lid on things".
Given that at least two of these Home Office pathologists were criticised for some years and yet remained in their jobs, it begs the question: were these government professionals huddling together for protection, or were some of these "mistakes" and "omissions" made deliberately, or allowed to pass, for political reasons?
With fallibility - and corruption - in mind, it may be instructive to review Nicholas Hunt's testimony to the Hutton Inquiry.
What is striking in Nicholas Hunt's account of Dr Kelly's death is the impression he creates of blood everywhere: blood on Kelly's jacket, on his trousers, on his left wrist, on the palm of his right hand, on the right side of his neck, and on the right side of his face. But actually he is not talking of large amounts - only of small patches smeared on the body and clothing. Contrast this with the paramedics' assertion that, in their professional view, there was very little blood around for an arterial bleed. Normally an artery (which Hunt says was "completely severed") would produce copious amounts of blood spurting from the wound. Yet to quote paramedic Vanessa Hunt:
"....the amount of blood that was around the scene seemed relatively minimal and there was a small patch on his right knee, but no obvious arterial bleeding. There was no spraying of blood or huge blood loss of any obvious loss on the clothing."
PC Franklin, one of the police constables at the scene, reported blood being "puddled around". However, this was not what the paramedics saw contemporaneously. Vanessa Hunt and David Bartlett worked much closer to the body than the two police constables; had there been blood puddled around when they unbuttoned Kelly's shirt to put the electrodes on his chest, they would have been practically kneeling in it. Vanessa Hunt also commented "On his left arm...there was some dry blood".... -- only some blood, while Bartlett expressed surprise there was not more blood on the body itself, suggesting that is what he would expect to have found with an arterial bleed.
According to Nicholas Hunt, there "was a series of incised wounds, cuts, of varying depth over the front [inside] of the left wrist and they extended.. over about 8 by 5 cm...", some of which he describes as "hesitation marks."
Perhaps we too need to hesitate, and ask: why would this world-class scientist - and according to Keith Hawton the psyciatrist, an "extremely meticulous" man - choose such an astonishingly clumsy and uncertain method of suicide? The following information is from an internet police investigation site:
"Wrist slashing by itself is not a very effective means of committing suicide and few people actually die of it. This is especially true if the victim cuts laterally across the wrist. He or she may do substantial damage to the important tendons which control the fingers. He or she may even cut an important artery or vein but the blood vessels will immediately draw back into the muscles surrounding them, effectively sealing off any major leakage of blood."
Most people attempting suicide in this way slash both wrists with the intention of losing as much blood in as short a time as possible. They also know the importance of immersing the wrists in hot water to help prevent blood coagulation and keep the wound open. Even so, "success" is not guaranteed, and many wake up later in a tub of cold water.
Other internet sources point out that the best way to kill oneself using a knife is to make a longitudinal incision, from the crease of the inside of the wrist up to the elbow. Kelly would surely have been aware of this. It seems surprising that he chose to slash his wrist. As a professional scientist, once Head of Microbiology at Porton Down, one would imagine he might have chosen a much more effective & certain method.
But to follow Nicholas Hunt's version of events, far from acting in the precise and careful manner of a world-class scientist, Kelly apparently kills himself in the most painful manner possible. Hunt tells the inquiry that amongst the multiple incised wounds to the inside of the wrist was one much deeper wound. He says that this represented the severing of the ulnar artery. Why though, would Kelly choose to sever the ulnar artery on the little finger side - one which is deep within the wrist - rather than the radial artery on the thumb side, which is much more accessible. Moreover the ulnar artery was not just cut but COMPLETELY SEVERED. How likely is it that Kelly would cut so deep into his own wrist that he would completely sever one of the trickiest arteries to reach?
In his article: "The Murder of David Kelly" Part 1, Jim Rarey points out that cutting the ulnar artery suggests not so much a right-handed Kelly slashing from left to right, missing the superficial radial and cutting deep into the ulnar, as someone other than Kelly standing in front of the body slashing deep into the inside of the wrist (the ulnar side) across to the outside (the radial side) of the wrist.
Hunt describes "hesitation marks" which "are commonly seen prior to a deep cut being made into somebody's skin." These hestation marks might seem to indicate that this was indeed a genuine suicide -- but how do we know that they were not added after the body had been removed from the scene, as part of a staged, state-sanctioned murder? An assassin might have slashed the wrist once while Kelly was unconscious & left the detail to others. There is sufficient evidence - see article Dark Actors at the Scene of Kelly's Death by Rowena Thursby - to suggest that this may have been a "show" suicide, intended to dupe the layperson into believing this was suicide when it may have been murder made to look like suicide.
Nicholas Hunt next mentions abrasions to the left side of Kelly's scalp. But rather than leave the reason for those scalp abrasions open, he jumps in and tries to make them seem perfectly normal:
"... and of course that part of his head was relatively close to the undergrowth."
How many abrasions does one receive on one's head just from walking through a wood? Kelly was a seasoned and vigorous walker, fully capable of ducking under or pushing aside any branches or twigs in his way.
Lord Hutton however, appears to support Hunt's line of reasoning; he asks: "Were those abrasions consistent with having been in contact with the undergrowth?" - as if receiving abrasions from walking through a wood was an everyday occurrence! (One starts to wonder whether there might not be a degree of collusion between the questioner and the witness).
But Hunt does not stop there. His testimony starts to descend into the realms of high farce.
Pleased that Lord Hutton is uncritically following his drift he answers:
"They were entirely, my Lord; particularly branches, pebbles and the like."
Pebbles? Is this man serious? He is in a wood, not on a beach! Woods do not contain pebbles. Even allowing for a slip of the tongue - let us say he meant to say "stones" as, indeed he states later - how is Dr Kelly's scalp supposed to have come into contact with stones? He had three fresh scalp abrasions: are we supposed to believe this cool scientist, whose brain, according to Tom Mangold, could "boil water", been hitting his head repeatedly on the ground?
Hunt next attempts to explain away a number of bruises on Kelly's body:
"There was a bruise below the left knee. There were two bruises below the right knee over the shin and there were two bruises over the left side of his chest. All of these were small..."
When asked how they could have occurred Hunt states:
"They would have occurred following a blunt impact against any firm object and it would not have to a particularly heavy impact....some of them may have been caused as Dr Kelly was stumbling, if you like, at the scene."
First we have Kelly banging his head on the odd stone that happened to be lying on the floor of the wood, and now Hunt now tries to seduce us into imagining Kelly "stumbling at the scene". Why should Kelly have been stumbling at the scene? If the official scenario is to be believed, here was a man, calmly looking for a place in the wood where he could end his life. According to Keith Hawton, the psychiatrist, having made the decision to commit suicide, Kelly would have felt a sense of peace and calm. So why now are we being asked to accept as consistent the notion that he was "stumbling" around the wood?
We are reassured by Hunt there were "no signs of defensive injuries.... and by that I mean injuries that occur as a rseult of somebody trying to parry blows from a weapon or trying to grasp a weapon."
But what if someone, or a group, assaulted Kelly without a weapon? Perhaps the bruise on the chest for example occurred as a result of a single sharp push. It is possible that the grazes on the head could have occurred if Kelly had been manhandled. A cut on the mouth mentioned by Hunt, again may have been the result an assault.
Much is made of the possiblity of Kelly having been attacked with a knife. Why? Because a knife was found at the scene? Hunt appears to be suggesting that one of the few alternatives to suicide would have been murder at the hands of a random knife-wielder lurking in the wood. The possiblity of a small group of state-sponsored professional assassins setting up a suicide scene appears to be regarded as taboo or too hot to mention. Kelly may have been accosted before he reached the wood, abducted, and drugged - and only later placed in the copse with suicide props around him.
When seeking reasons for the cuts and bruises on the scalp, chest and mouth, why is murder-made-to-look-like-suicide not properly explored? Presumably pathologists employed by the Home Office know better than to mention such a scenario.
Pre-Judging the Case
Throughout his testimony Hunt starts from a position of assuming Kelly's death was probably straightforward suicide:
"The orientation and arrangement of the wounds over the left wrist are typical of self-inflicted injury. Also typical of this was the presence of small cuts called tentative or hesitation marks. The fact that his watch appeared to have been removed whilst blood was already flowing suggests that it had been removed deliberately in order to facilitate access to the wrist. The removal of the watch in that way and indeed the removal of the spectacles are features pointing towards this being an act of self-harm"
Plus, he adds, the "neat way in which the bottle an its top were placed, the lack of obvious sign of trampling of the undergrouth or damage to the clothing..." and the pleasant and private location of the spot.
But is it right to start with a theory, or should the evidence be examined without pre-judgement? When facts are interpreted - or misinterpreted - through a filter of prejudice which says "this looks like suicide" crucial points may be missed.
For example, how does Hunt know the watch was removed whilst blood was already flowing? We are left to assume it is because he found blood on the watch. But blood on the watch need not mean that the watch was still on the wrist. Blood may have splashed onto the watch after it was removed. Moreover it need not have necessarily have been Kelly who removed the watch. Had he removed his own watch it would have made more sense to do so before he started cutting. Another party - a professional assassin intent on creating a suicide-scene - could have removed the watch. So the interpretation of "watch removed by suicidal man in order to gain better access to wrist" is but one possibility. Hunt alights upon this tortuous explanation either to back his prejudice or to convince his audience that this was straightforward suicide.
Unfortunately the system is set up to regard him as an expert whose interpretation is of great value. But it is still only one interpretation, and can obviously be wrong. The neat placement of the bottle & top need not mean Kelly himself had arranged them. A private spot may be considered by some an ideal location for a suicide - but by others, for a murder.
The possiblity of murder is dismissed point by point, without proper examination. No evidence was found, says Hunt, of:
- restraint-type injury
- sustained violent assault
- strangulation or use of arm hold.
But had Kelly been frogmarched through the wood with a gun to his back, violent assault or restraint would be unnecessary. And had he been overpowered by a chloroform-type substance, prior to the cutting of his wrists, we would be none the wiser. Interestingly, Hunt was questioned on this last point, which suggests that some kind of assassination was being considered, but he merely refers to the toxicologist's report, which to date has not been made available. Is it hoped that such "details" may be forgotten as the media circus transfers its focus from the details of the death itself onto whose political head will fall?
Hunt's final assessment, his own personal interpretation -- "there was no pathological evidence to indicate the involvement of a third party in Dr Kelly's death.... the features are quite typical, I would say, of self-inflicted injury if one ignores all the other features of the case" -- is the version of events the media reports. The pathologist has spoken - the silent inference being that he is best placed to know - so we must bow to his "expertise". But as we have seen in the introduction, such "expertise" is sometimes questionable.
In Hunt's qualifier - "if one ignores all the other features of the case" -- lies the rub. Ignore the fact that Kelly had become an embarrassment to the establishment through divulging inconvenient facts & suppositions to the media? Ignore the fact that he was about to return to Iraq, where his by- now public profile would have guaranteed publicity to the dearth of WMDs? The fact that this would highlight the mendacity employed in persuading the British and American public to support a war with Iraq? The fact that here was a man scrupulous about a truth they did not want told? The fact that Kelly had met and was discussing book projects with Victoria Roddam, a publisher in Oxford who in an e-mail to the scientist only a week before his death wrote: "I think the time is ripe now more than ever for a title which addresses the relationship between government policy and war - I'm sure you would agree."?**
Far from ignoring Kelly's pivotal political position at the time of his death, we should surely highlight it: as we explore the physical evidence provided at the death scene, the fact that there were elements in government and intelligence who wanted Kelly silenced has to figure prominently in understanding how he died.
Nicholas Hunt may have been a pathologist doing his job in the way he saw fit, nothing more than that. Perhaps, like other Home Office pathologists, he was displaying a degree of bias in his interpretations. Alternatively, Hunt may have been party to a political plan requiring solid indications that on 17th-18th August, Dr Kelly had killed himself on Harrowdown Hill by slashing his own left wrist.
More investigations into the circumstances of Kelly's death at www.deadscientists.blogspot.com
Gloves Off in the Village that wants Answers on Death
Dark Actors at the Scene of Dr Kelly’s Death
The Murder of Dr. David Kelly
Dr Kelly warned of “Dark Actors Playing Games”
Kelly: ‘I will Probably Be Found Dead in the Woods’
Request to Re-Open Inquest into Dr Kelly’s Death
Dr David Kelly, Sex Education and the BBC
Last updated 30/06/2004
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