Inquiry Likely into Case of Mass-Murdering British Doctor

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:07pm EDT

London ( - A small English town struggled Tuesday to come to terms with the fact that their mild-mannered local doctor was a mass murderer who killed patients by injecting them with heroin.

The case has prompted public demands for an inquiry into how the killing spree could continue unchecked, and a health minister will address lawmakers later Tuesday on the matter.

Dr. Harold Shipman was sentenced to life in prison Monday for killing 15 middle-aged and elderly women patients and then forging the will of one of his victims to make himself the beneficiary.

But only after a jury delivered its verdict in the Preston Crown Court was it disclosed that police in the Greater Manchester area believed he may have killed more than 150 patients, making him the most prolific killer in British legal history. Further prosecutions are likely.

Judge Thayne Forbes told an impassive Shipman he would pay for his "wicked, wicked crimes" for the rest of his life and should not expect parole.

The court heard over and over how the family doctor from a thriving, one-man practice in the town of Hyde visited patients in their homes, then administered lethal doses of diamorphine - the medical term for heroin - and watched them die. In all 15 cases the victims were women, usually fairly healthy, and living alone.

After each murder, he altered the victim's patient record on his surgery computer, falsifying a medical history that would explain a death by natural causes or a heart disorder.

Shortly before his mid-1998 arrest, Shipman forged the will of an 81-year-old patient, making it appear she had left her entire $630,000 estate to him. Then he killed her.

The patient's daughter, a lawyer, alerted the police after becoming suspicious about the badly-typed will and learning that two witnesses had counter-signed the document under false pretences.

A police investigation led to the exhumations of a number of victims' bodies, in which massive amounts of diamorphine were found. Other bodies had been cremated.

Shipman, a 54-year-old father of four, denied all the charges, leaving unanswered the question - why? He had never benefited financially from the murders, although the attempted will forgery suggested that was about to change.

Neither prosecutors nor the defense ever suggested that Shipman was insane. Specialists not involved in the trial, including a psychiatrist who interviewed Shipman after his arrest, suggested that he enjoyed inducing and observing the act of death and relished the power this gave him over his patients, whom he despised even as they trusted him.

"I have no doubt that each of your victims smiled and thanked you as she submitted to your deadly administrations," Judge Forbes told Shipman.

"None of your victims realized that yours was not the healing touch. None of them knew that in truth you had brought about her death, which was disguised as the caring attention of a good doctor. The sheer wickedness of what you have done defies description and is shocking beyond belief."

Six months before his arrest, police investigated the doctor after another physician raised concerns about the number of death certificates Shipman was signing. The inquiry failed to establish anything, with police saying the doctor simply appeared to have a larger than average number of elderly patients.

A state doctor involved in that police probe was suspended Monday pending further investigation.

The British Medical Association (BMA) Tuesday called for a full inquiry into the Shipman case.

"It is important that the government and the medical profession move quickly to reassure the public about the high quality of care delivered by the vast majority of doctors in this country," said BMA chairman Ian Bogle.

He said the association had long been calling for changes in laws relating to death certificates, cremation and the disposal of bodies.

"The Shipman case also raises issues concerning the prescription, regulation and use of controlled drugs, which should be considered as part of the inquiry we are seeking."

Bogle stressed that doctors "must be aware of their obligation to recognize changes in the conduct, performance and health of a colleague, and to report it if they believe there is any danger to patients."

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