Dr Harold Shipman was Britain’s most notorious and prolific serial killer.
No wonder former High Court Judge Dame Janet Smith, who chaired The Shipman Inquiry into his activities, remarked: ”He betrayed his patients' trust in a way and to the extent that I believe is unparalleled in history”.
Now freelance writer Ryan Green has produced a new book about him and discusses in Harold Shipman: The True Story of Britain's Most Notorious Serial Killer, how and why he slaughtered 218 patients before he was discovered and arrested.
The answer to ‘why’ is a crazed mix of a highly addictive personality, the ‘banality of evil’ and a bizarrely brazen self-confidence. The ‘how’ was the staggering incompetence of those in authority around him.
As Shipman’s horrific story has been retold many times, here I’ll focus on how he was convicted by the evidence of forensic toxicology performed on several exhumed bodies although the majority of his victims had been cremated.
Julie Evans, then a relatively junior forensic toxicologist, told Shipman’s trial that she was ‘breaking new ground … in novel scientific territory’’ when she began work on the case by performing tests for opiates.
But her view was contradicted by her colleague, Dr Robert Anderson of Glasgow University Department of Forensic Toxicology who told The Guardian newspaper that toxicology was not a new science. “What's new”, he maintained, “is that things are better understood”.
He explained: “'…. it depends on what's happened to the body after death. Usually morphine is relatively stable after death, and it wouldn't decompose very quickly … (however) … sometimes there is no trace of a poison in the blood because it killed the person too quickly. A heroin addict found dead with a needle sticking out of his arm is an example - sometimes there's no trace of the drug at post-mortem. However, if the person lived long enough [after the morphine was administered] for the blood to get into circulation, it should be present”.
It is known that Shipman urged the bereaved families of most of his victims to opt for cremation in order to destroy all evidence of how they died. This has to be the best argument I know against the practice and in my opinion, a good reason for it to be wholly proscribed although I realise that this will never happen!
* Harold Shipman: The True Story of Britain's Most Notorious Serial Killer is available on Kindle $3.99 (£2.80; ₪ 15.60 approx) and paperback $9.97 (£7.00; ₪ 38.95 approx).
© Natalie Wood (09 March 2016)