Sir Richard Henriques, one of Britain’s most distinguished lawyers, played a leading role in some of the most notorious trials in recent years. Now retired as a High Court judge, his gives a unique insight into the inner workings of our justice system, beginning with the case of Harold Shipman — a GP who was also a serial killer and who murdered at least 215 of his patients.
At a crowded and hushed Preston Crown Court in October 1999, I rose as prosecuting counsel to open the case against Britain’s most prolific serial killer.
‘The defendant,’ I began, ‘is a GP. The prosecution allege he has murdered 15 of his patients by administering substantial doses of morphine or diamorphine, thereby causing their death.
‘None of them were prescribed these drugs. None was terminally ill. All of them died most unexpectedly. All of them had seen Dr Harold Shipman on the day of their death.
‘The defendant killed them because he enjoyed doing so. He was exercising the ultimate power of controlling life and death, and repeated it so often that he must have found the drama of taking life to his taste.’
Harold Shipman (pictured) is one of Britain’s deadliest serial killers, with the former GP murdering 215 of his patients before being sentenced to life
Lawyer Sir Richard Henriques (pictured) was the prosecuting lawyer in his trial, which began at Preston Crown Court in October 1999
How many old people Harold Shipman killed may never truly be known but a later public inquiry estimated the figure conservatively at 215.
The question of why he did it still hangs in the air, and much has been written concerning his apparent lack of motive. That, however, is not relevant.
It is a common misapprehension that motive is a necessary ingredient in proving the crime of murder. It is not.
He is now dead so exactly what motivated him will never be known, but my conclusion — after my extensive involvement in presenting the case against him and cross-examining him in court — is simply that he enjoyed the thrill of killing.
What gave him pleasure was not merely injecting his patients with morphine on the spurious pretext that he was taking blood, it was the subsequent drama as he fobbed off the family, ensured no post-mortem took place, falsified medical records and deceived the undertaker and the coroner.
Here was a man who read crime novels by the score and had few if any leisure pursuits. He was a loner.
While some doctors with an hour or so to spare between morning and evening surgeries might go to the golf club, Shipman would go out and kill a patient.
The number of murder charges that could have been brought against Shipman ran into the hundreds.
However, since a criminal trial must be manageable and the jury not overwhelmed by too much information, it was decided to select 15 murders to charge him with.
The first was that of Mrs Kathleen Grundy, an 81-year-old widow, whose death had begun the police inquiry. In her forged will she surprisingly left all her possessions to Shipman rather than to her family.
Her daughter, a solicitor, raised suspicions and it was discovered the will in question was a new one and had been typed on a portable typewriter found in Shipman’s surgery.
Mrs Grundy’s signature had been forged, as apparently had two witnesses to it. When her body was exhumed, high levels of morphine were found.
Because he had been accused of so many trials, he was only charged for 15 of his murders in court in order to prevent the jury being overwhelmed with information. The first of the charged murder was 81-year-old widow Kathleen Grundy (pictured)
All this had prompted a team of 60 police officers to examine every sudden and unexpected death among the doctor’s patients, leading to him being charged with multiple murders.
His response to the accusations was typically arrogant and conceited. He sought to belittle the officers interviewing him, criticising their form of questions and mocking their apparent lack of medical knowledge. He regarded the whole episode as an affront to his dignity.
When the allegations were first made public, many of the patients at his practice in the Hyde area of Greater Manchester were incredulous.
They held him in very high regard and believed he was innocent and being unfairly targeted by the police and by the local press in its reports on him.
Relatives of some of the deceased even objected to the exhumation of the bodies of their loved ones as the evidence against him was prepared.
But that initial intense support from devoted patients melted away as a grim realisation permeated Hyde that the man in whom they had placed such trust over many years was a serial killer.
By the time of the trial, his supporters were down to just his wife and two sons, who attended court daily.
Shipman only had two supporters at his trial – his wife Primrose (pictured) and his two sons
My thoughts, however, were with those relatives of his victims who faced the traumatic ordeal of giving evidence that was both deeply personal and painful. They could have been spared this.
Before the trial I thought there was a real possibility of Shipman admitting his guilt and advancing a defence of diminished responsibility, which would reduce his crimes from murder to manslaughter.
In the event, his contempt for those he considered his intellectual inferiors, coupled with his precious professional reputation, to which he clung, would not permit him either to confess his guilt or admit to an abnormality of mind.
The prosecution began with the case of Mrs Grundy. Shipman made many errors, and selecting her as his final victim was one of these.
Her daughter, Angela Woodruff, was a solicitor and was not prepared to accept Shipman’s submission that not only had her mother disinherited her own daughter in favour of her doctor, but that she had also been a secret drug addict and died from an overdose.
In the witness box, she described her close relationship with her mother and her suspicion at being told she had supposedly made a new will.
Other witnesses gave evidence of how healthy and energetic Mrs Grundy was, which was confirmed by a medical expert who had examined her records.
The pathologist who performed the post-mortem examination on her described her as a very healthy woman with far fewer fatty deposits than expected in a woman her age.
She did not die of old age or any natural cause. She had died of morphine toxicity.
The trial continued as I went through each allegation of murder in the finest detail. There was Winifred Mellor, for example, a widow aged 73.
Shipman had visited her one afternoon in May 1998 and then returned a few hours later to pronounce her dead from angina, a condition he said he had diagnosed nine months earlier. This was a surprise to the family, who knew of no such condition.
He then altered her medical notes to create the false impression that she had pre-existing angina. Similarly, he lied to the family that she had twice phoned his surgery on the day of her death. The itemised telephone records proved no such phone calls were ever made.
A priest who ministered to the grieving family gave damning evidence that Shipman was ‘very uncaring and extremely insensitive’ in his dealings with them and very rushed and dismissive, urging them to consider cremation of the body rather than burial. Again, both pathologist and medical expert considered the cause of death was morphine toxicity.
Joan Melia, 73, went to Shipman’s surgery with a respiratory tract infection and afterwards told friends she was expecting a visit from him. She was found dead in a chair at home.
Shipman was called and, without examining her, issued a death certificate indicating she died from pneumonia.
73-year-old Joan Melia (pictured) was found dead in her home after she was visited by Shipman. The cause of death was morphine toxicity – something only Shipman could have masterminded
A post-mortem examination found minimal lung disease. The cause of death was morphine toxicity.
The only explanation was that Shipman did indeed visit as she had expected and injected her with a fatal dose of morphine.
Ivy Lomas, 63, differed from the others in that she actually died in Shipman’s surgery. She was a regular attendee there but none of her ailments were life-threatening. On the day of her death, she had chest pains, went into the treatment room at the surgery with Shipman and died there. He saw three further patients, before calling in the practice receptionist and telling her he’d put Mrs Lomas on the electrocardiograph machine ‘but there was nothing there’.
Shipman’s story to the police was different: he made no mention of the ECG machine but said he had put her into the treatment room to rest, gone away and when he came back she was dead. He certified the cause of death as coronary thrombosis. When Mrs Lomas’s body was exhumed, very high levels of morphine were revealed.
In evidence, a medical expert said if Shipman thought Mrs Lomas had a coronary thrombosis, he should not have left her.
An ECG recording would have added nothing to his clinical diagnosis. Further, there was no print-out from the ECG machine with her medical notes.
Then there was Marie Quinn, 67, whom he said had a stroke. She telephoned the doctor and left her front door on the latch so he could go round. He did so and found her in the kitchen ‘breathing her last’.
It turned out her door was not the sort that could be left on the latch. Telephone billing also showed no call from Mrs Quinn’s home to the surgery. The jury was left to consider why Shipman had visited her when it was proven that no phone call had been made.
Shipman said that Marie Quinn (pictured) had died of a stroke after she had rung him up, but there was no records of a telephone call to the GP at all
I went through death after death in detail, pointing out the inconsistencies and the lies in Shipman’s accounts to relatives of how their loved ones had died, the alteration of entries in the medical records of his patients and the incorrect causes of death he certified.
In the case of Jean Lilley, 59, a friend gave evidence of finding her sitting motionless on the settee with one arm across her stomach and the other dropped down her side just minutes after Shipman had left. She tried to call him back but he had driven off.
Later, he told the friend he had tried to get Mrs Lilley to go to hospital, but she had refused.
The friend expressed incredulity at this but Shipman countered with the words: ‘Well, she was very poorly and she had heart failure.’
In fact, the cause of death was morphine toxicity, as was the case in all the nine bodies of his victims that were exhumed.
For those six whose bodies had been cremated, there could be no such pathological proof that Shipman had poisoned them. Here the evidence had to be circumstantial, and it was equally devastating.
In each case, the victims were far from terminally ill. All of them were found sitting peacefully in a chair or on a sofa. In four cases, Shipman admitted to being present at the death. In one, the victim was found within half an hour of his visit.
With all the cases presented, we moved on to a vital part of the case against Shipman — that he had ready access to the morphine he used to kill his victims.
This involved hearing evidence of about 28 other patients, most of whom had died, whose morphine or diamorphine Shipman had taken.
This was not to suggest he murdered these patients or hastened their death. The purpose was to demonstrate his stockpiling of the drugs.
He insisted that he did not keep stocks of morphine either at home or in his surgery. It was vital to establish that he did.
It was a massive ordeal for those witnesses because it meant their speaking publicly of lengthy terminal illness causing unbearable pain, followed by the loss of a loved one whom they believed to have been well cared for by their trusted doctor. They, too, had been duped by Shipman.
Widow followed widow recounting their late husband’s slow and painful death, coupled with the dreadful realisation that the drug intended to relieve their husband’s pain had been used to kill perfectly healthy fellow human beings.
Each spoke of Shipman’s visit to the home upon being informed of their loss, of his apparently genuine sympathy, of their thanks for all his care over many months, and finally Shipman’s removal of the unused morphine with the words: ‘You’ll have no more use for this. I will dispose of it.’
There was clear evidence of over-prescription, prescription after death, and using morphine prescribed for one patient to treat another. He had prescribed diamorphine for one patient whose only medical problem was tennis elbow.
There was also evidence of actual physical stockpiling by Shipman. When his house was searched, 54 morphine tablets and four ampoules of diamorphine were found hidden in a box marked Zantac, an anti-ulcer drug.
The prosecution case was now over. It had lasted six weeks; 120 witnesses had entered the witness box, and the evidence of many more had been read out in court.
It was now Shipman’s turn and for two and a half days he gave evidence, without interruption, either from myself or from the judge.
His evidence to the court consisted of multiple lies designed to explain away 15 murders and neutralise the many mistakes he had made.
He maintained, for example, that Mrs Grundy was a habitual drug abuser and that the morphine in her body was self-administered, though he had no evidence for this. He said he had taken a blood sample from her but had forgotten to send it for testing.
Shipman (pictured) gave uninterrupted evidence at his trial for two and a half days
‘Abuse of drugs in the elderly is becoming recognised,’ he stated, with the air and confidence of an expert witness. As to her will, he maintained she had borrowed his typewriter to prepare it.
On each of the other cases, he explained that although he had treated the individual patients, they died from natural causes. He had wanted to send two of them to hospital but they refused. When he returned to them they had collapsed and died.
In each case, he claimed to have carried out a full examination to establish death and had offered a number of the families a post-mortem examination, but they had declined.
When Shipman finished, I began my cross-examination. How coincidental was it that six of the victims should actually die in his presence while another three were found dead shortly after he left?
How strange that so many of the deceased were found sitting comfortably in a chair or on a sofa and that medical records were altered either immediately before or shortly after death.
How often did Shipman pretend he had called an ambulance or a hospital, when no such call had been made? And what happened to all the morphine he had taken so much trouble to collect?
Shipman spent seven days on the ropes, but lasted the duration avoiding any knockout. He deployed a standard defensive technique, namely: ‘There is no sensible answer to that question.’ Shipman grew more and more arrogant as his case weakened, and his arguments grew even more ludicrous and implausible.
The closest Shipman came to being knocked out was during a consideration of Ivy Lomas’s case. He accepted that she had travelled to his surgery by public transport and walked along a corridor to his room. The transcript then reads:
Q: When you first saw Ivy Lomas in your consulting room, were there any apparent effects of diamorphine poisoning?
A: She didn’t appear to have any effects of opiate poisoning.
Q: Was she able to walk along the corridor to your examination room?
A: Yes, she was.
Q: You remember Professor McQuay’s evidence, don’t you, that the effects of a fatal dose of diamorphine would be seen within a five-minute window?
A: I remember him saying that.
Q: Well, if this lady died at ten minutes past four, she must have been administered or administered to herself diamorphine between four o’clock and ten minutes past four?
A: You can put the evidence that way, I would agree.
Q: You were with Ivy Lomas throughout all that time, were you not?
A: I don’t disagree with that statement.
Q: You were continuously with her, were you not? We can see when you were first with her from the computer screen, ‘Seen in GPs’ surgery, Dr H.F. Shipman, 3.57.’
A: I’m not disagreeing with that.
Q: And you say to us here and now that you were continuously in her presence up to the moment she collapsed and died.
A: Allowing for the time taken for resuscitation, yes.
Q: How then did Ivy Lomas get that diamorphine into her system?
A: I have no knowledge.
Q: Dr Shipman, there is simply no sensible explanation, is there?
A: Was that a statement or was it a question?
Q: You know very well it was a question, formulated as a question, requiring an answer. Dr Shipman, there is no sensible explanation, is there?
A very long pause followed, and a scribbled note was placed before me by Peter Wright QC, who was prosecuting the case alongside me. It read, ‘Ask Shipman if he would like to phone a friend.’ I resisted the temptation and simply allowed the pause to continue for a considerable time. Eventually, he replied:
A: I have no knowledge.
Q: There is simply no sensible answer, is there?
A: I do not know of any explanation.
At that moment I concluded that any remote chance of an acquittal had been comprehensively eliminated. In retrospect, I may have cross-examined Shipman for longer than necessary, but with 15 separate and distinct murders, we were covering more than two murders a day, plus the charges relating to the forged will and the morphine.
Significantly, the defence put up no medical experts to back Shipman’s case. Had any done so, their professional reputations as expert witnesses would have been irreparably damaged.
In my closing speech, I reminded the jury that not once in all these cases did Shipman call an ambulance, not once did he admit any patient to hospital, and not once did he permit a post-mortem examination.
I highlighted his abuse of his patients’ trust: ‘He did not care for those 15 patients, he killed them.
Sir Richard (pictured) gave the crucial closing speech in Shipman’s trial, and the GP was found guilty on all counts and was sentenced to life imprisonment
‘He did not with truth relay the circumstances of death to grieving relatives, he duped them to save his own skin and falsified records to cover his tracks.
‘As they grieved, this determined man deployed any and every device to ensure that no post-mortem took place.
‘He would overbear, belittle, bamboozle and disadvantage relatives until they accepted the doctor’s word that they should not “put their mother through it”.’
On January 24 2000, the jury retired to consider their verdicts. They came back a week later.
Shipman was guilty on all counts. It was my task then to inform the court of his previous convictions, something that had not come out before.
More than 20 years earlier, in 1976, Shipman had pleaded guilty at Halifax magistrates’ court to eight specimen charges of obtaining the painkiller pethidine by deception, unlawfully possessing it and forging a prescription. He had asked for 74 similar offences to be taken into consideration.
As these past convictions were now read out, there was an undisguised gasp of shock from every quarter of the court. Few if any of the relatives were aware of any previous conviction, and hearing of them and the nature of them must have been a body blow.
The judge told Shipman: ‘You murdered your victims by a calculated and cold-blooded perversion of your medical skills for your own evil and wicked purposes. You took advantage of their trust. I have little doubt that each of them smiled and thanked you as she submitted to your deadly ministrations.’
He passed sentences of imprisonment for life on each of the 15 counts of murder, with a recommendation that he should never be released.
Shipman had got his just deserts but I still find it acutely disturbing that, back in 1976, the General Medical Council allowed him to continue practising despite his conviction for misuse of pethidine. He was given a warning, but no more.
Had they erased his name from the medical register, these tragedies would have been avoided. I find it shameful that his name remained on a register of individuals authorised to administer medicine to the public, and thus to be trusted by the public.
The Home Office could also have taken action back in 1976 by prohibiting him from having access to controlled drugs, but it chose not to.
Given that the vast majority of Shipman’s 215 victims were cremated, it is also manifest that procedures for authorising cremations were woefully inadequate and failed to prevent Shipman from concealing homicide.
It is a recurring thought, too, that had not Shipman forged Mrs Grundy’s will so incompetently, he may well have continued murdering his patients indefinitely. No system should have permitted such events.
By way of postscript, Shipman hanged himself in prison in 2004, aged 57. His suicide was no act of remorse.
Death before 60 guaranteed his wife an enhanced payout on his life insurance policy. Failure to include a suicide clause left his insurers as vulnerable as his many other victims.
Adapted from From Crime To Crime by Sir Richard Henriques, published by Hodder on June 4 at £25.
Source: Daily Mail – Articles