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Are we getting any closer to the truth on who really killed Dr David Kelly?

2010 August 20
by Paul Vallely

Who killed Dr David Kelly? Was Britain’s senior expert on germ warfare killed by “dark actors” from some foreign government – or even by members of our own security services? Or did he die at his own hand, as was generally supposed when his body was found in an Oxfordshire wood in 2003, four months after British troops took part in the invasion of Iraq?

Such questions were supposed to have been laid to rest by the Hutton Inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Dr Kelly’s death when it reported in 2004. It concluded that the scientist had died from a haemorrhage caused by a severed wrist artery with poisoning by 29 coproxamol pain-killing tablets and undiagnosed coronary artery atherosclerosis as contributory factors.

It was a suicide verdict many people did not accept. Some of the sceptics were wild conspiracy theorists. But more respectable voices have consistently raised questions.

In 2006 the Liberal Democrat MP, Norman Baker – who is now a government minister – wrote a book called The Strange Death of David Kelly which argued that the former UN weapons inspector did not commit suicide.

Last year six doctors who had repeatedly raised questions which they felt the authorities continuously ignored began legal action. They are demanding a formal inquest into the death on the grounds that there was “insufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt he killed himself.”

Then in January Lord Hutton upped the ante by ordering that all files relating to Dr Kelly’s post-mortem – including the autopsy report, unpublished medical and scientific records and photographs of the body – should remain secret for 70 years. The judge suggested that his intention was to avoid further distress to the family. But the move fuelled the conviction of sceptics that something was being hidden.

The pressure continued. In June Richard Spertzel, the former head of the UN Biological Section, who worked closely with Dr Kelly in Iraq in the 1990s, wrote to the Attorney General claiming that Dr Kelly had been told he was on a “hitlist” in the final years of his life. The month afterwards a former KGB agent, Boris Karpichkov,who defected to the West, said he been told the scientist had been “exterminated” and his death made to look like suicide.

Then Graham Coe, the detective who found Dr Kelly’s body, came forward and claimed there was less blood found at the scene than was recorded by the Hutton inquiry. He also revealed that – contrary to the evidence he had given Hutton – a third man, whom campaigners suggest was a member of the security services, was with him and his partner when they found the body.

Finally, earlier this month, nine doctors – former coroners, a professor of intensive-care and a past president of the British Academy of Forensic Sciences – wrote an open letter calling for “a detailed investigation of all the medical circumstances” surrounding the death and alleging that the Hutton Inquiry’s procedures and conclusions were “unsatisfactory”.

The doctors, led by Michael Powers QC, a doctor and barrister who has served as a coroner, wrote: “It is extremely unlikely, from a medical perspective, that the primary cause of death would or could have been haemorrhage from a severed ulnar artery in one wrist without any evidence of a blood-clotting deficiency.” They called for a “proper inquest”. They were supported by a retired pathologist, Jennifer Dyson, who insisted that, had there been normal inquest, a coroner would probably have recorded an open verdict in the absence of absolute proof that suicide was intended.

All this prompted Michael Howard, the former Conservative Party leader, to become the most prominent politician yet to call for a full inquest into Kelly’s death. The Justice Secretary Ken Clarke – who is the only minister who could overturn Lord Hutton’s decision to impose a 70-year secrecy order – met the Attorney General to discuss the issue. Mr Grieve then announced he was considering reopening the case.

These are the claims he will be considering:

Dr Kelly could not have bled to death

David Kelly’s death certificate states that he died from loss of blood. But nine doctors, including some with expertise in vascular surgery and forensic medicine, have challenged that official verdict. The blood vessel served was the ulnar artery, the second artery in the wrist, which one of them described as the width of a matchstick. To die from a haemorrhage Dr Kelly would have had to lose 2,700ml (almost five pints) of blood. “It was impossible for 2,700ml of blood to have been lost through this small artery,” the doctors wrote. “Indeed, to lose 500ml (around a pint) through it would be unlikely.” Moreover the artery would probably have retracted on being severed and within a short time clotting would have ceased the flow.

The other factor raised by the nine doctors was the lack of blood where the body was found. The two paramedics called to Dr Kelly’s body have said there was not enough blood at the spot to justify the belief that he died from blood loss. The doctors said it would have been “a simple matter to collect all the bloodstained/soaked leaf litter, soil and nettle leaves and then to elute the haemoglobin by immersion in cold water”. This would have established how much blood the dead man had lost. Was this done? they ask.

The suppressed post-mortem documents mean we have no answer to that. However their view has been challenged by Dr Andrew Davison, a forensic pathologist at Cardiff University, who accuses the nine of a lack of relevant autopsy or forensic pathology expertise “At an outdoor scene, such as a wood, where blood can seep away into the ground, I would not expect to be able to make an accurate estimate of blood lost, and there is no way of measuring the blood remaining in the great vessels post-mortem.”

Other parts of their science is also disputed. A surgeon specialising in the care of wrist injuries has complained the nine doctors made several mistakes in their letter. “The ulnar artery is not a minor artery, but the main artery supplying the hand and is substantially bigger than a matchstick,” Dr LC Bainbridge, a consultant hand surgeon, wrote to The Times. Arteries do not always retract, constrict and close. That process is affected by age “even a small amount of hardening of the arteries can be sufficient to prevent enough constriction to stop the bleeding”. Constriction also relied on there being a clean cut to the artery, not a ragged on as in Dr Kelly’s case.

That view was supported by Dr Davison who wrote: “I would not be as confident as the authors about the ability of the severed ulnar artery to remain clotted off in the absence of medical treatment and particularly in someone who may have lapsed into a coma because of a drug overdose”.


His dose of painkillers was non-fatal

Lord Hutton concluded: “It is probable that the ingestion of an excess amount of coproxamol tablets coupled with apparently clinically silent coronary artery disease would both have played a part in bringing about death more certainly and more rapidly than would have otherwise been the case.”

But some doctors disagree. The number of pills that he had consumed were not enough to cause death.

That is true. Coproxamol is a combination of two drugs, dextropropoxyphene and paracetamol, both of which are highly toxic in overdose. In Dr Kelly’s blood the concentration of dextropropoxyphene was at the lower end of the range that has been measured in people who have used coproxamol successfully to commit suicide.

Jennifer Dyson, the retired pathologist, has suggested that the combination of stress, blood loss and overdose could have produced a heart attack, especially since the autopsy showed Dr Kelly was suffering from cardiovascular problems which he did not know about.

Another forensic pathologist, Chris Milroy of Sheffield University, has previously suggested that Dr Kelly’s heart condition might have made it hard for him to sustain any significant degree of blood loss.

And Professor Robert Forrest, a toxicologist former President of the Forensic Science Society has concluded: “I’ve got no doubt, that the cause of David Kelly’s death was a combination of blood loss, heart disease and an overdose of co-proxamol . . . it is important that all of them interacted to lead to the death.”

A suicide verdict didn’t make sense from a psychiatric point of view

Lord Hutton’s verdict of suicide was largely based on evidence given to him by Professor Keith Hawton, director of the Centre for Suicide Research at the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry. Professor Hawton spoke to Dr Kelly’s widow and daughters, read his last e-mails and watched a recording of his interrogation by a committee of MPs. Dr Kelly, he said was not “mentally ill”, a factor often linked to suicide, but there were very significant pressures upon him

But another leading expert on suicide, Colin Pritchard, emeritus professor at the University of Southampton, last week expressed concern about how fully Prof Hawton was questioned by Lord Hutton. Insufficient weight had been placed on the fact that Dr Kelly had arranged to see his daughter Rachel on the evening of his death. It was hard to conceive that, given the quality of the relationship between father and daughter, Dr Kelly would have done that without even leaving a note to say: “I’m sorry darling. Forgive me”.

Indeed the testimony of friends with whom David Kelly been in touch shortly before his death suggests that his mental state was quite upbeat, considering the pressure he was under. “He wasn’t depressed. He was upset,” one of his colleagues from Iraq, an American translator, Mai Pederson, has said.

She was instrumental in his fairly recent conversion to the Baha’i faith, which outlaws suicide. “He was planning for his retirement. He’d had job offers in the States as well as Europe. He was excited that one of his daughters was getting married.” Speaking of the row over his being the mole who had led a BBC reporter to claim that the dossier outlining Tony Blair’s case for war had been ‘sexed-up’, he told her: “The controversy will blow over.”

Crucially, said Prof Pritchard there was no evidence of “intent to die” by Dr Kelly, which is essential for any suicide verdict. “When possible reasons ‘for’ suicide are juxtaposed against ‘reasons for living’ ,” he said, “the finding is barely 50-50 for suicide,” the professor said. “No coroner in the land would say anything other than ‘Open verdict’.”


There are oddities and inconsistencies in eye-witness accounts

All these questions are unanswered:

  1. Why did Graham Coe, the detective who found Dr Kelly’s body, not tell Hutton that there was a third suited man with him and his partner DC Colin Shields when the body was discovered, as some eye-witnesses had suggested. Why has he subsequently admitted this? And why does he refuse to name him?
  2. How did Dr Kelly cut his left wrist if, as friends said, he had damaged his right arm to such a degree that he struggled cutting steak?
  3. Why was the ulnar artery severed rather than the radial, which is how the cut would naturally have been made, from left to right, with the right hand? Could it suggest the cut was made by a third person?
  4. Why were there no fingerprints on the knife when Dr Kelly was not wearing gloves? Nor on the bottle from which he supposedly drank to swallow the tablets? Why was that fact not disclosed to Hutton, but only later through a Freedom of Information request?
  5. Why did the helicopter which passed over the scene with heat-seeking equipment not detect the body soon after death – another piece of information only obtained using the Freedom of Information Act almost five years after the Hutton Inquiry ended?
  6. What explains the discrepancy between the account of the position of the body given by the dog handler who discovered it and the paramedics when they arrived? Did someone move the body, wipe fingerprints or destroy evidence? Did Dr Kelly die where his body was found?
  7. Why did the head of the investigation into Dr Kelly’s death, Superintendent Alan Young of Thames Valley Police, not give evidence to Hutton?
  8. Is it true that the police computer file into Dr Kelly’s death was created an hour before he was even reported missing? Did the police and three officers from MI5’s Technical Assessment Unit strip the wallpaper at Dr Kelly’s home in the hours after he was reported missing – but before his body was found? Had Dr Kelly written 40,000 words of a book on Iraq and biological warfare which they took away? Where are his computers now?
  9. Why was Dr Kelly’s death certificate only completed on August 18, three weeks into the Hutton Inquiry? Why does the certificate – which are normally precise about the time, cause and location of death – say “Found dead at Harrowdown Hill, Longworth, Oxon”?
  10. Why did Lord Hutton in January this year place a 70 year embargo on release of the post-mortem documents?

The answers to many of those questions could be mundane and inconsequential. Those who insist that Dr Kelly was murdered by the Iraqis – or by MI5 to prevent him from disclosing that Britain helped Saddam develop biological weapons when he was fighting Iran back in the 1980s – or who have developed some other far-fetched conspiratorial fantasy, could well be disappointed.

But what is clear is that – had a normal inquest been held, rather than leaving a verdict on Dr Kelly’s death to be reached by Lord Hutton as part of his highly politically-charged inquiry – the verdict on the death of Dr David Kelly would not be Suicide. It would be the more enigmatic Open Verdict.

The question which ministers must now answer is whether a full-blown – and enormously costly inquest – would achieve much. Politically it would provide another stick with which to beat Tony Blair. But there are already plenty of those.

What else? Britain has a history of long, expensive public hearings – from the Hillsborough Disaster inquiry, to the inquest into the death of Princess Diana to the Saville investigation into Bloody Sunday – which do little but confirm most people in their pre-existing views and prejudices. What political catharsis would be achieved by raking over the detail of Dr Kelly’s death and coming to more exhaustive but almost certainly equally inconclusive finding?

Dr Kelly’s family has no interest in pushing for a formal inquest. It would undoubtedly cause his daughters and his wife further and unnecessary distress. Perhaps we should be guided by them.

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