Sir Richard Henriques, one of Britain’s foremost attorneys, has played a leading role in some of the most notorious trials of recent years. Now retired as a Supreme Court judge, he provides a unique insight into the inner workings of our justice system, starting with the case of Harold Shipman – a family doctor who was also a serial killer and who murdered at least 215 of his patients.
In an overcrowded and hushed Preston Crown Court in October 1999, I stood up as a prosecutor to open the case against Britain’s most prolific serial killer.
“The defendant,” I began, “is a GP. The prosecution claims that he killed 15 of his patients by administering substantial doses of morphine or diamorphine, which killed them.
None of them were prescribed these drugs. No one was terminally ill. They all died unexpectedly. They all had Dr. Harold Shipman seen on the day of their death.
“The defendant killed them because he liked that. He exerted the ultimate power to control life and death and repeated it so many times that he must have found the drama to bring life to his taste. ‘
Harold Shipman (pictured) is one of Britain’s deadliest serial killers, with the former family doctor 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 really become known, but a later public inquiry estimated the figure to be conservative at 215.
The question of why he did it is still in the air and much has been written about his apparent lack of motive. However, that is not relevant.
It is a common misunderstanding that motive is a necessary ingredient in proving murder. It is not.
He’s dead now, so what exactly motivated him will never be known, but my conclusion – after my extensive involvement in presenting the case against him and cross-examination in court – is simply that he enjoyed the excitement of the kill .
What he enjoyed was not only injecting his patients with morphine on the false pretext that he was taking blood, it was the tragedy that followed when he crumbled the family, prevented post mortem, falsified false medical records, and cheated the funeral director and coroner. .
Here was a man who read crime novels every minute and had little or no leisure activities. He was a loner.
While some doctors would go to the golf club with an hour or so between morning and evening surgeries, Shipman would kill a patient.
The number of murder charges that could have been brought against Shipman rose to hundreds.
However, because a criminal trial should be manageable and the jury should not be overwhelmed with too much information, it was decided to select 15 murders to blame him.
The first was that of Ms. Kathleen Grundy, an 81-year-old widow, whose death had started the police investigation. In her forged will, she surprisingly left all her belongings to Shipman rather than her family.
Her daughter, a lawyer, was suspicious and it was discovered that the will in question was new and had been typed on a portable typewriter found in Shipman’s operation.
Ms Grundy’s signature was falsified because it apparently had two witnesses. High levels of morphine were found during the excavation of her body.
Having been charged with so many lawsuits, he was only charged with 15 of his murders in court to avoid flooding the jury with information. The first of the accused murder was 81-year-old widow Kathleen Grundy (photo)
All of this had led to a team of 60 police officers investigating every sudden and unexpected death among the doctor’s patients, accusing him of multiple murders.
His response to the charges was typically arrogant and opinionated. He tried to belittle the officers who interviewed him, to criticize their form of questions and to mock their apparent lack of medical knowledge. He considered the entire episode an insult to his dignity.
When the allegations were first made public, many of the patients in his practice in the Hyde area of Greater Manchester were incredulous.
They had a lot of respect for him and believed that he was innocent and that he was unfairly attacked by the police and the local press in her reports about him.
Relatives of some of the deceased even objected to the excavation of their loved ones’ bodies when the evidence was prepared against him.
But that initial intense support from devoted patients melted away when a grim realization dawned on Hyde that the man they’d trusted for so many years was a serial killer.
By the time of the trial, his supporters were just his wife and two sons, who went to court daily.
Shipman had only two supporters at his trial – his wife Primrose (photo) and his two sons
My thoughts, however, were with those relatives of his victims who underwent the traumatic ordeal to provide evidence that was both deeply personal and painful. They could have been spared this.
Before the trial, I thought Shipman would admit his guilt and defend a defense of diminished responsibility, reducing his crimes from murder to manslaughter.
In this case, his contempt for those whom he regarded as his intellectual subordinates, coupled with his precious professional reputation, which he maintained would not allow him to confess his guilt or admit an abnormal spirit.
The prosecution started with Ms Grundy’s case. Shipman made many mistakes and selecting her as his last victim was one of them.
Her daughter, Angela Woodruff, was a lawyer and was unwilling to accept Shipman’s comment that her mother had not only nullified her own daughter for the benefit of her doctor, but that she had also been a secret drug addict and died of an overdose.
In the witness stand, she described her close relationship with her mother and her suspicion that she was told that she had supposedly made a new will.
Other witnesses indicated how healthy and energetic Ms. Grundy was, which was confirmed by a medical expert who examined her records.
The pathologist who performed the post-mortem examination on her described her as a very healthy woman with far fewer fat deposits than expected in a woman her age.
She did not die of old age or natural causes. She died of morphine toxicity.
The trial went on as I went through every charge of murder in minute detail. There was Winifred Mellor, a 73-year-old widow.
Shipman had visited her one afternoon in May 1998, and returned a few hours later to declare her dead from angina pectoris, a condition he said he had been diagnosed nine months earlier. This came as a surprise to the family, who were unaware of such a condition.
He then changed her medical notes to give the false impression that she had pre-existing angina. Likewise, he lied to the family about calling his surgery twice on the day of her death. The specified telephone records indicated that such calls were never made.
A priest serving the grieving family provided damning evidence that Shipman was “ very indifferent and utterly insensitive ” in dealing with them and very rushed and dismissive, urging them to consider cremation of the body rather than burial. Again, both pathologist and medical practitioner believed that the cause of death was morphine toxicity.
73-year-old Joan Melia went to Shipman’s surgery with a respiratory infection and then told friends that she was expecting a visit from him. She was found dead on a chair at home.
Shipman was called and, without examining her, issued a death certificate showing that she died of pneumonia.
Joan Melia, 73, was found dead in her home after being visited by Shipman. The cause of death was morphine toxicity – something only Shipman could think of
A post-mortem study found minimal lung disease. The cause of death was morphine toxicity.
The only explanation was that Shipman did come as she expected and gave her a lethal dose of morphine.
Ivy Lomas, 63, was different from the others in that she died during Shipman’s surgery. She was a regular visitor there, but none of her ailments were life-threatening. On the day of her death, she had chest pain, went to the surgery treatment room with Shipman, and died there. He saw three more patients before calling the practice receptionist and telling her that he had put Mrs. Lomas on the electrocardiograph machine “but there was nothing.”
Shipman’s story to the police was different: he did not report the EKG machine, but said he had put her in the treatment room to rest, left, and when he came back she was dead. He explained the cause of death as coronary thrombosis. When Ms. Lomas’s body was exhumed, very high levels of morphine were revealed.
As evidence, a medical expert said that if Shipman thought Mrs. Lomas had coronary thrombosis, he shouldn’t have left her.
An ECG recording would have contributed nothing to his clinical diagnosis. Furthermore, there was no printout of the ECG machine with its medical notes.
Then there was Marie Quinn, 67, who he said had a stroke. She called the doctor and knocked her front door so he could walk around. He did so and found her “her last breath” in the kitchen.
It turned out that her door was not the kind that could stay on the bolt. Telephone billing also showed no phone call from Ms. Quinn’s house to the surgery. The jury had to consider why Shipman had visited her when it was proven that no calls had been made.
Shipman said Marie Quinn (pictured) had died of a stroke after calling him, but there was no record of a phone call to the doctor at all
I went through death after death in detail, pointing out the inconsistencies and lies in Shipman’s reports to relatives about how their loved ones had died, the change in entries in his patients’ medical records, and the incorrect causes of death he explained.
In the case of Jean Lilley, 59, a friend indicated that she saw her sitting motionless on the sofa with one arm over her stomach and the other fell by her side minutes after Shipman left. She tried to call him back, but he had driven off.
He later told the girlfriend that he had tried to take Ms. Lilley to the hospital, but she had refused.
The friend expressed disbelief, but Shipman replied, “Well, she was very poor and had heart failure.”
In fact, the cause of death was morphine toxicity, as was the case with all nine bodies of his victims who were exhumed.
For those six whose bodies had been cremated, there couldn’t be such pathological evidence that Shipman had poisoned them. Here the evidence had to be circumstantial and it was equally devastating.
In any case, the victims were far from terminally ill. They were all found peacefully in a chair or on a sofa. In four cases, Shipman admitted to being present at the time of death. In one case, the victim was found within half an hour of his visit.
Now that all cases had been brought in, we moved on to an essential part of the case against Shipman – that he had instant access to the morphine he used to kill his victims.
This involved hearing about 28 other patients, most of whom had died, of whom Morphine or Diamorphine had taken Shipman.
This is not to say that he killed or accelerated these patients. The aim was to demonstrate his supply of the drugs.
He insisted that he did not stock morphine at home or during surgery. It was essential to establish that he did that.
It was a huge ordeal for those witnesses because it meant speaking publicly of a long-term terminal illness that caused excruciating pain, followed by the loss of a loved one whom they thought had been well looked after by their trusted doctor. They too had been fooled by Shipman.
The widow followed the widow and related the slow and painful death of their deceased husband, along with the terrible realization that the drug intended to relieve their husband’s pain had been used to kill perfectly healthy fellow humans.
Everyone spoke of Shipman’s visit to the house after being notified of their loss, of his seemingly genuine compassion, of their gratitude for all his care for many months, and finally Shipman’s disposal of the unused morphine with the words : “You will no longer use this. I’ll throw it out. ‘
There was clear evidence of over-prescription, prescription after death, and the use of morphine prescribed to one patient to treat another. He had prescribed diamorphine to one patient whose only medical problem was tennis elbow.
There was also evidence of actual physical storage 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 medicine.
The prosecution was now over. It had taken six weeks; 120 witnesses entered the witness stand and evidence of many more had been read in court.
It was now Shipman’s turn, and for two and a half days he gave testimony from myself or the judge without interruption.
His evidence in court included multiple lies intended to explain 15 murders and neutralize the many mistakes he had made.
For example, he claimed that Mrs. Grundy was an addicted drug user and that the morphine in her body self-administered, although he had no evidence of this. He said he took a blood sample from her, but forgot to send it in for testing.
Shipman (pictured) provided continuous evidence during his two and a half day trial
“Drug abuse in the elderly is increasingly recognized,” he said, with the air and confidence of an expert witness. As for her will, he claimed that she had borrowed his typewriter to prepare it.
In each of the other cases, he explained that although he treated the individual patients, they died from natural causes. He had wanted to send two of them to the hospital, but they refused. When he returned to them, they had collapsed and died.
In any case, he claimed to have carried out a full investigation to determine death and offered some of the families a post-mortem investigation, but they turned it down.
When Shipman finished, I started my cross-examination. How coincidental was it that six of the victims actually died in front of him while three more were found dead shortly after his departure?
How strange that so many of the deceased were found comfortably in a chair or on a sofa and the medical records were changed just before or shortly after death.
How many times did Shipman pretend to have called an ambulance or a hospital when such a call had not been made? And what happened to all the morphine he had so hard to collect?
Shipman spent seven days on the ropes, but took the time to avoid any knockout. He used a standard defensive technique, namely: “There is no sensible answer to that question.” Shipman grew increasingly arrogant as his case weakened, and his arguments became even more ridiculous and unbelievable.
The closest Shipman was during a discussion of Ivy Lomas’ case. He accepted that she had traveled to his practice by public transport and walked down a hallway to his room. The transcript then reads:
Question: Were there obvious effects of diamorphine poisoning when you first saw Ivy Lomas in your doctor’s office?
A: She did not seem to have any effects from opiate poisoning.
Question: Could she walk down the hall to your exam room?
A: Yes, she was.
Question: You remember Professor McQuay’s evidence, do you not, that the effects of a lethal dose of diamorphine would be seen within five minutes?
A: I remember when he said that.
Question: Well, if this lady died at ten past four, should she have been given diamorphine or given herself between four hours and ten minutes at four?
A: You can post the evidence that way, I agree.
Question: You were with Ivy Lomas all this time, right?
A: I don’t disagree with that statement.
Question: You were with her continuously, were you not? We can see when you were first with her on the computer screen, “Seen in General Practitioners,” Dr. H.F. Shipman, 3.57. “
A: I don’t disagree with that.
Q: And you are telling us here and now that you were constantly in her presence until she collapsed and died.
A: Considering the time it takes for CPR, yes.
Question: How did Ivy Lomas get that diamorphine into her system?
A: I have no knowledge.
Question: Dr. Shipman, there just isn’t a meaningful explanation, is there?
A: Was that an explanation or was it a question?
Q: You know full well that it was a question, formulated as a question, that required an answer. Dr. Shipman, there is no logical explanation, is there?
A very long pause followed, and Peter Wright, QC, who was prosecuting the case next to me, put a scribbled note in front of me. It said, “Ask Shipman to call a friend.” I resisted the temptation and just let the break continue for quite some time. Finally he replied:
A: I have no knowledge.
Question: There is simply no sensible answer, is there?
A: I don’t know any explanation.
It was then that I came to the conclusion that any distant chance of an acquittal was completely eliminated. In retrospect, I may have investigated Shipman longer than necessary, but with 15 separate and separate murders, we handled more than two murders a day, plus the indictments regarding the forged will and the morphine.
Significantly, the defense has not appointed medical experts to support Shipman’s case. Had that happened, their professional reputation as an expert witness would have been irreparably damaged.
In my closing speech, I reminded the jury that not once did Shipman call an ambulance in all of these cases, not once hospitalize a patient, and not once authorize a post-mortem examination.
I emphasized his abuse of his patients’ trust: “He didn’t care about those 15 patients, he killed them.
Sir Richard (pictured) delivered the crucial closing speech at Shipman’s trial, and the GP was found guilty on all counts and sentenced to life imprisonment
“He has not truthfully conveyed the circumstances of death to grieving relatives, he has fooled them to save his own skin and forged plates to hide his tracks.
While they were mourning, this determined man used every device to make sure there was no post-mortem.
“He would overburden, belittle, taunt, and harm family members until they accepted the doctor’s word not to let their mother through.”
On January 24, 2000, the jury retired to reflect on their verdict. They returned a week later.
Shipman was guilty on all counts. It was then my job to inform the court of his previous convictions, something that had not previously emerged.
More than 20 years earlier, in 1976, Shipman had been found guilty at the magistrates’ court in Halifax on eight specimens of charges of obtaining the pain reliever pethidine by deception, misappropriation, and adulteration of a prescription. He asked to have 74 similar offenses taken into account.
While these convictions were now read in the past, an unconcealed shock came from every 15 minutes. Few, if any, of the family members knew about a previous conviction, and hearing them and their nature must have been a physical blow.
The judge said to Shipman, “You killed your victims through a calculated and cold-blooded twist of your medical skills for your own bad and bad purposes. You took advantage of their confidence. I have no doubt they all smiled and thanked you as she submitted to your deadly ministries. ‘
He sentenced him to life for each of the 15 murders, recommending never to be released.
Shipman had gotten his fair deserts, but I still find it acutely disturbing that the General Medical Council allowed him to continue practicing in 1976, despite his conviction for abuse of pethidine. He received a warning, but no more.
If they had erased his name from the medical registry, these tragedies would have been avoided. I am embarrassed that his name is included in a register of persons authorized to administer medicines to the public, and thus to be trusted by the public.
The Interior Ministry could have also taken action in 1976 by banning him from accessing controlled drugs, but decided not to.
Since the vast majority of Shipman’s 215 victims have been cremated, it is also clear that cremation authorization procedures were woefully inadequate and did not prevent Shipman from hiding murder.
It is also a recurring thought that, despite the fact that Ms. Grundy’s will had not been forged so incompetently, Shipman may have continued to murder his patients indefinitely. No system should have allowed such events.
As a postscript, Shipman hanged himself in prison in 2004, aged 57. His suicide was not an act of remorse.
Death before the age of sixty guaranteed his wife an increased benefit on his life insurance policy. Failure to include a suicide clause made 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 for £ 25.