Six doctors demand reopening of inquest into death of David Kelly

BMJ 2009; 339 doi: (Published 09 December 2009) Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5386
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

    Six doctors are taking legal action to try to get the inquest into the death of the government scientist David Kelly reopened because they believe the original verdict of suicide to be unsafe.

    Dr Kelly, 59, a weapons expert, was found dead in woods near his Oxfordshire home more than six years ago after he had gone out for a walk. His wrist was found to have been slashed, and he had painkillers in his bloodstream, although not at a lethal level.

    He was under pressure after being named as the source of a BBC report that the government’s dossier on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq had been “sexed up” to justify the 2003 invasion.

    An inquest into his death was opened by the Oxfordshire coroner but never resumed. The suicide verdict was delivered by the Hutton inquiry, which was set up by the then prime minister, Tony Blair, to look into Dr Kelly’s death. Charles Falconer, then lord chancellor, decreed that the inquiry should fulfil the function of an inquest, a procedure previously used for mass disasters.

    The doctors have compiled a 13 page dossier of medical evidence casting doubt on the verdict of suicide. The six signatories are the radiologist Stephen Frost, coroners’ law expert Michael Powers, surgeon Martin Birnstingl, internal medicine specialist Christopher Burns-Cox, trauma expert David Halpin, and epidemiologist Andrew Rouse.

    Their main argument is that the bleeding from the cut to the ulnar artery in Dr Kelly’s left wrist is highly unlikely to have caused his death. It is unusual, they say, to die from a single deep cut to the wrist.

    They plan to ask the attorney general, Patricia Scotland, to issue a fiat quashing the original verdict and allowing the issue to be determined afresh. The final say on a new inquest is for the High Court, but the court will usually agree if the coroner raises no objection. If the coroner objects, the High Court will hold a hearing to determine if a new inquest should go ahead.

    If the attorney refuses to issue a fiat, the doctors would hope to apply to the High Court for a judicial review of her decision, said the doctors’ solicitor, Frances Swain of Leigh, Day & Co.

    Michael Powers QC, who originally qualified as a doctor but now practises as a barrister specialising in medical law, told the BMJ: “I’ve joined together with five others who have analysed all the evidence that’s gone before the Hutton inquiry that touched upon the medical aspects of the case.

    “We have concluded that there is insufficient evidence that Kelly committed suicide or that he died from the haemorrhage that Hutton concluded he did. Hutton concluded beyond reasonable doubt that Kelly committed suicide. We say that on that medical evidence you can’t reach that level of certainty.”


    Cite this as: BMJ 2009;339:b5386

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