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Authors: Bernard Knight

According to the Evidence (31 page)

BOOK: According to the Evidence
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Chastised, the doctor flushed and repeated what he had muttered. ‘I said that I was playing safe, my lord, given that I had only seen the lady on one previous visit.'
Prideaux gave something suspiciously like a snort as he came to his last question. ‘Come along, doctor! I put it to you that if Miss Sheila Lupin had not made the initial accusation to you that her sister had been poisoned, you would have been happy to issue a certificate – instead of dashing off to the coroner with this hearsay claim?'
As the flustered locum made a final half-hearted denial, Prideaux barked, ‘No further questions, my lord,' and sat down with a flourish that suggested that the whole issue must now surely be settled.
The prosecuting barrister declined an invitation to re-examine, and Mr Justice Templeman released the witness from further involvement. Harrap-Johnson descended from the box and walked out, covered in less glory that he had expected. Moira's initial feelings had changed to sympathy as he looked embarrassed and deflated.
‘That went better for us, didn't it?' she whispered to Mrs Armitage, who nodded then looked at her wristwatch. ‘I expect we'll just about get the next witness in before lunch. That lot up there are keen on their food at the judge's lodgings.'
She nodded at the five august personages sitting up on the high bench – Moira irreverently thought that they looked like the characters in a Punch and Judy show, dressed in their colourful outfits.
This time, no witness was called from outside the court, but when Lewis Gordon called his name an elderly man, who was sitting at the end of the second bench furthest from Richard Pryor, rose to his feet and went towards the witness box. Moira knew from her reading of all the papers that had come to Garth House that he must be the local coroner's pathologist. He was a thin, dried-up man of at least seventy years of age, his dark suit hanging on him, his shirt collar too large for his leathery neck.
After taking the oath, he said in a faintly foreign accent that he was Dr Rupert Stein and that he was a semi-retired doctor, now living in Stratford-upon-Avon. Moira decided that he must be a pre-war immigrant from somewhere in Central Europe.
Rupert Stein haltingly explained that he had retired from his hospital post as a pathologist seven years earlier, but still did post-mortems for several coroners in the Cotswold region. One of these post-mortems was on Mrs Mary Parker, though his tone suggested that he now wished he had kept well clear of such a controversial case.
‘On the day following the death, you performed an examination at the request of the local coroner. Did you know the full circumstances of the death before you began?'
‘Only in the broadest terms. I had wondered why the death of a sufferer from advanced cancer, under medical care for many months, should have been reported to the coroner.'
The old doctor's voice was as dry as his appearance, but he seemed perfectly alert and competent as he dealt with the questions.
‘And what were these “broadest terms”, doctor?'
Dr Stein frowned and looked uncomfortable for the first time.
‘The coroner's officer told me that a close relative had made an allegation that the deceased may have been given an injection of potassium chloride shortly before death. On hearing this, I considered declining to proceed with my examination, as I am not experienced in forensic procedures, but as the medical history seemed so strongly in favour of the cancer as the cause of death, I decided to carry on. I felt that any doubt could be resolved later.'
Junior counsel then led the pathologist through his post-mortem report, detailing all the relevant findings. These amounted to a catalogue of the effects of the malignant tumour in the abdomen, which had spread widely to many of the major organs and to the bones.
‘Was there any additional condition that may have precipitated sudden death, doctor? Such as haemorrhage or thrombosis?'
Rupert Stein shook his head. ‘No, I found nothing of that nature.'
‘Was there anything that could have substantiated this allegation of an injection of potassium chloride?'
Again the pathologist answered in the negative, but added a caveat. ‘Of course, I would not expect any signs of that. Potassium chloride stops the heart; there are no visible manifestations.'
‘There was a fresh injection mark on the arm, was there not?'
‘Yes, but she was being given frequent intravenous morphine,' countered the doctor. ‘There were injection marks on both arms, of varying ages.'
The prosecution barrister did his best to bring the questioning to an advantageous conclusion.
‘So the situation is this, is it not? You found no sudden pathological event that could have caused sudden death and you had no evidence to exclude potassium poisoning?'
The old pathologist looked steadily down at the advocate. ‘That's true, but equally I had no evidence to confirm or even suspect potassium toxicity, especially in the presence of very advanced cancer.'
The barrister sat down and Nathan Prideaux rose to his feet at the judge's invitation.
‘Dr Stein, you have really already answered all the questions I had for you, but just to summarize: this was an examination that was rather sprung on you, was it not?'
‘Looking back, I suppose I should have told the coroner that I would have preferred him to have sought a forensic opinion. But at the time the attitude of the coroner's officer was that this allegation was not to be taken all that seriously. It was the day following the death and I understand that investigations had not got very far by that time.'
Prideaux nodded understandingly.
‘You took no blood samples for analysis to check for potassium?'
‘It would have been pointless. Potassium is a natural constituent of the body and leaks out rapidly from the cells into the blood after death.'
‘Then, doctor, the situation surely is this – you did a post-mortem on a lady with very advanced cancer and found no objective evidence whatsoever that this was not the sole cause of death. Do you agree?'
When the pathologist accepted this, the defence QC had one last question.
‘You may not be a forensic pathologist, but you have been an experienced hospital consultant for many years and must have seen many cases of advanced cancer. Given the medical history of this lady and in the light of your own findings, have you any reason to think that the cancer could not have killed her?'
When the doctor gave a firm ‘No' as his answer, Prideaux gathered his gown about him and sat down with a confident thump.
Behind him, Richard Pryor, who so far had not had occasion to tear up any paper for notes, could almost hear the rumble of stomachs on the judge's bench. Sure enough, Mr Justice Templeman began gathering up his pens and notebooks as he declared a recess for luncheon. After warning the jury that they must not speak to anyone about the case, he announced resumption at two o'clock and the whole court dutifully stood as he led his colourful procession out of the court.
Much as Moira liked Doris and appreciated her whispered explanations, she was eager to talk to Richard to hear how he thought the case was going. In spite of the life-and-death seriousness of the matter, she was as partisan over the case as if she was rooting for Wales in a rugby international.
As soon as the court broke up, she waited for him to have a quick word with the defence lawyers until he caught up with her at the door of the court.
‘Let's go and get something to eat first,' he said, taking her arm. ‘We've got almost an hour and a half before the big guns come on this afternoon!'
He grinned at her, and she suddenly felt that she was in danger of falling in love with him. Ignoring a couple of greasy spoons, he steered her into a hotel in Westgate Street where they were settled at a corner table of the dining room. It was an old-fashioned establishment, which seemed a throwback to the thirties or even the twenties, with dark furniture and a waitress in a cap and apron. However, the menu looked acceptable. Before they started talking about the case, Moira ordered Brown Windsor soup followed by a beef casserole, while Richard chose lamb and mixed veg after his soup.
‘So how do think it went,' she asked anxiously as he poured glasses of water for them both, studiously avoiding any alcohol.
‘As good as can be expected,' he replied. ‘But this is the calm before the storm. So far all the prosecution have is the accusations of that poisonous sister-in-law. The rest of the evidence is neutral – doesn't prove or disprove that she died of either cancer or potassium chloride.'
‘So it all rests on Dr Angus Smythe this afternoon – and, of course, you!'
‘Battle of the giants!' he said cheerfully, which made her shake her head in wonder.
‘I don't know how you can be so calm about it, with probably the life of that poor man in your hands!'
Richard shrugged as the waitress approached with their soup.
‘Maybe he did it, maybe he didn't, but that's not my concern. All I can do is state the scientific evidence as I see it. It's up to the jury to decide who they want to believe.'
‘Do you think they'll understand this chemical business?' asked Moira, picking up her spoon.
‘I'll do my best to put it in plain language – and no doubt Nathan Prideaux will rub it in as hard as he can.'
In spite of her apprehensions, Moira enjoyed her meal, and Richard Pryor's appetite seemed unaffected by the prospect of him taking centre stage in an hour or two. Over the coffee that followed a Pear Helene, they talked about the court and the various personalities, Moira being fascinated by the grim theatre of it all. She seemed particularly taken by the fact that the wives of the High Sheriff and the Lord Lieutenant wanted to attend such events.
‘Never turn down a free lunch, Moira! That's their motto, part of the perks of public office.'
She wanted to know why Dr Harrap-Johnson and Dr Rogers had not been allowed to sit in court, unlike Dr Stein and Richard himself.
‘Because they were witnesses to fact, being directly involved in the care of Mrs Parker. Theoretically, if they sat in court and heard other evidence from the other witnesses, they might be influenced by it.'
‘So what about you?' she demanded.
‘The pathologists are classed as expert witnesses, there to offer opinions, as well as fact. You'll see Angus Smythe sitting there when we get back. We're supposed to be indifferent to anything other than the scientific facts of the issues. Actually, the distinction is a bit blurred, as you heard the other two doctors being asked about whether Mrs Parker could have died of her cancer, which is really an opinion.'
He grinned at her again. ‘There are higher rates of pay for expert witnesses, but I doubt that young Lochinvar-Johnson or even Dr Rogers will hold out for a rise!'
At half past one they walked back to the Shire Hall, in case the QC wanted a quick conference again, and by the time the court reconvened they were sitting back in their places. This time, as Richard had prophesied, a new face was present on the further end of the second bench. Dr Angus Smythe, a Home Office pathologist from Oxford, was a burly Scotsman with a big red face and short, fair hair showing a hint of ginger. During lunch, Richard had said that he was a competent pathologist, though inclined to resent contradiction, being quite dogmatic in his opinions, sometimes unwilling to accept another view.
‘Fancies himself as another Sir Bernard Spilsbury, that allegedly infallible operator who dominated the business for forty years.' Moira was not sure if Richard's criticism was a touch of sour grapes, though she thought this would be foreign to his nature.
The butler appeared and, as the court rose, the now well-fed quartet followed the judge into their places. After the jury and the defendant had been settled, Lewis Gordon rose from his bench to call his last witness.
Angus Smythe stumped to the witness box and took the oath in a loud, gruff voice with a pronounced Scots accent. After it had been established that he was a consultant pathologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford and was on the Home Office list of approved forensic pathologists, the prosecuting QC cut straight to the chase.
‘Dr Smythe, you were asked by the coroner for North Gloucestershire to carry out a second post-mortem on the body of Mrs Mary Parker, were you not?'
Smythe agreed and there was a brief confirmation of dates and places connected with the autopsy.
‘Why was this unusual procedure requested?'
‘Because neither the locum GP nor the coroner's pathologist were willing to offer a cause of death, due to certain allegations that had been made by a relative,' was the bluff response.
More questions elicited that he had been informed of the nature of these allegations and of the contents of the used syringe and the two containers found in the veterinary surgery.
‘And what was the result of your examination of the body, doctor? Were you able to determine the cause of death?'
The Scotsman gripped the edges of the witness box as if he intended to tear it apart.
‘I reviewed the dissections made by Dr Stein and agreed with all his findings. This did not assist me in arriving at a cause of death, so I took a variety of samples for examination back at my own laboratory.'
‘Did you perform these investigations yourself?' asked the QC.
‘I did some of the analyses, and the rest were performed by my technicians under my direct supervision. The results led me to an unequivocal opinion as to the cause of death, which was cardiac failure due to the intravenous injection of potassium chloride.'
There was an excited buzz of murmuring from the public gallery, and the pencils of the reporters scurried across their notebooks.
BOOK: According to the Evidence
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