Read this article in The Independent by Matthew Holehouse.
A NURSE jailed for 30 years for murdering two patients and seriously harming 15 others was convicted of crimes that never took place, new evidence suggests.
Benjamin Geen, 29, was found guilty in 2006 of injecting patients with drugs that stopped their breathing in order to satisfy a “lust for excitement” when resuscitating them.
Two men, David Onley, 75, and Anthony Bateman, 66, died.
Appeal lawyers say Geen, a former Territorial Army lieutenant from Banbury, Oxfordshire, is the victim of a ‘witch-hunt’ in a health service determined to prevent a repeat of the case of Harold Shipman, the GP who murdered at least 200 of his patients.
“There has been a major miscarriage of justice,” said Dr Michael Powers QC, Geen’s barrister.
In February 2004, after a spate of respiratory arrests on the A&E ward, staff at Horton General Hospital became suspicious of Geen and called the police.
Prosecutors told the jury at Oxford Crown Court that the pattern of 18 cases identified from patient records was so unusual it was the work of “a maniac on the loose” – and that only Geen was on duty in every case. Prosecution witnesses told the court that a variety of painkillers and sedatives administered by a rogue nurse were the most likely cause of such collapses.
The jury agreed. Geen was acquitted of one charge, and sentenced to 17 life sentences.
However, hundreds of pages of new evidence call into question the safety of that conviction.
A new report by Prof Jane Hutton, a leading medical statistician, found that the Crown had no grounds to say that the ‘pattern’ of illness at the hospital was rare, or evidence of a murderer on the loose.
“The evidence given… was of no value in supporting a conclusion that there was an unusual pattern, nor a conclusion that any unusual pattern was not a chance event,” she wrote.
Opinions given by witnesses based on anecdotal evidence, such as that of a Horton A&E nurse in court who testified that respiratory collapses were very rare, were “very likely to be misleading.” “Most people do not keep accurate records of events, and memory is generally selective,” she wrote.
In the weeks following Geen’s arrest, the initial pool of ten victims under investigation by doctors at Horton to grew to several dozen. How they and the police whittled those down to the 18 for whom charges were brought is not clear, and was not challenged in court.
However, emails exchanged between senior doctors hunting for ‘victims’ following Geen’s arrest show they focussed on his patients, and that the task of examining casualty cards of 4,000 A&E patients who were not treated by Geen was given the lowest priority because they would take too long to examine. Defence lawyers say this proves that, from the start, the investigation was creating a pattern of cases that could lead only to one nurse.
Geen’s case was rejected in November by the Court of Appeal. Judges refused to hear from new expert witnesses after ruling that their analysis did not amount to significant fresh evidence.
Lawyers will tomorrow hand an appeal to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. If it decides the evidence renders Mr Geen’s conviction unsafe, it can return it to the Court of Appeal.
The jury found that seven patients collapsed after Geen injected them with muscle relaxants. This scenario is now questioned by a submission from Dr Mark Heath, a professor of clinical anaesthesiology at Columbia University, New York, and expert on lethal injections who has testified in US Supreme Court cases. On examining their records, he found the victims’ symptoms inconsistent with the paralysing effects of such drugs, which would leave the victim unable to breath but fully conscious.
“There are many far more mundane causes of these events, and in none of the charts I reviewed does it appear to me that the administration of a muscle relaxant is a likely cause,” he wrote.
“Conscious paralysis is subjectively an extraordinarily astounding and horrifying experience, it is difficult to imagine that any person… would fail to recall and relate that an extremely remarkable and awful event happened to them,” he wrote.
Other new evidence suggests Geen did not kill David Onley. He had been admitted to A&E shortly after being discharged following triple heart bypass. He had a fever and a chest infection, and had two heart attacks in hospital. Doctors believed he was ‘on borrowed time’, but the jury decided Geen had administered drugs to stop his breathing, which triggered a fatal third heart attack.
However, a report after the trial by Dr Charles Pumphrey, commissioned in response to proceedings for damages made by Mr Onley’s family, found the cause of death was liver failure linked to septicaemia.
Geen was never caught by CCTV or witnesses. Almost all the patients were elderly or seriously ill on arrival.
The clincher for court was the discovery of a syringe of muscle relaxant in Geen’s fleece pocket on the day he was arrested. Geen said he had taken it home by accident – a breach of nursing rules but, former nurses say, a common mistake. Police said it was a sign he was becoming more brazen and would kill again.
Only two patients were found to have traces of non-prescribed drugs in their urine. However, an internal hospital report into the incidents, written in September 2004 but not shown to the jury, found that record-keeping was flawed and that many casualty staff were failing to record drugs they legitimately administered.
The report also calls into question the ‘unusual pattern’. In December 2003, when Geen was said to be beginning his spree of attacks, seven patients were taken from A&E into critical care after suffering respiratory arrest. But the previous December, the figure had been five, with very few in the intervening months. The report notes that such “an increase might be expected in the winter months” – but adds that nursing staff instead identified Geen as the cause.
The fresh evidence came to light after Geen’s family wrote to London Innocence Project (LIP), an initiative for law students who investigate suspected miscarriages of justice.
“We were shocked by how much of the conviction depended on evidence that should have been excluded due to its prejudicial bias,” said James Bromige, 23, a trainee barrister.
LIP will tomorrow launch a public campaign supporting Geen’s appeal.
The crown’s expert witness, Professor Alan Aitkenhead, who advised the police through the Geen investigation was an expert witness at the Shipman trial.
Dr Powers said that doctors have become “suspicious” since Shipman – particularly of nurses.
“There’s a climate that adverse events have got to be explained,” said Powers. “We’re very anxious to avoid disasters, and as soon as we get a whiff of one it’s very nice to tie it all up.”
“It’s probably the heart of the risk of injustice: a desire to get a conviction. But there will be times when people are wrongly convicted.”
Central to fresh appeal case is the judgement made in December in the appeal of Colin Norris, a Newcastle nurse found guilty of murdering four elderly patients with insulin injections. Judges upheld the conviction, but also ruled that in such cases an unusual pattern of illnesses was, on its own, worthless as evidence. Individual charges needed to be proven on their own merits. Lawyers believe that ruling, if applied to Geen’s conviction, would render it to be unsafe.
“If the Court of Appeal had applied their approach in Norris to Ben’s case then he could have been spending Christmas with his family instead of in prison. It is of the utmost importance that our appeal is heard again at the first possible opportunity,” said Mark McDonald, a barrister and the founding director of LIP.
Nor, McDonald says, was the trial, held close to Horton Hospital, well handled. Jurors were found to have discussed the case with strangers, but were not discharged. The defence counsel was changed at a late stage, pushing the trial back four weeks and leading to repeated requests for adjournments. There was simply not enough time, defence lawyers say, to make sense of thousands of documents of complex medical evidence.
Geen’s sister, Hayley, 21, is now studying to be a lawyer at Buckingham University in the hope of helping to free her brother. He has been held at Long Lartin high security since last summer, where he has been studying for an Open University degree and attending yoga classes. After moving from Woodhill prison, the governor at Long Lartin told Geen that he could no longer work as a Samaritan listener for other prisoners as his crimes were committed while in a position of trust.
“It’s had such a big impact on all of us. You feel very guilty every day for getting on with your own lives,” said mother Erica, 47 a nurse.
His father, Mick, 48, a newspaper printer from Milton Keynes, said this weekend: “Ben always wanted to be a nurse. He is a caring person. He was in a TA medical unit, and if this miscarriage didn’t happen I’ve no doubt he would have been in Afghanistan. He wanted to serve in the Army and do his tour of duty.
“It’s been 1400 days so far. We refuse to believe, and we know, that he has not committed those crimes. That will never change,” he said.
“The case was so theatrical and emotive, I thought it was some sort of American movie. You could tell, most of the evidence was going straight over the juror’s heads. I recall seeing some were asleep.
“We put our faith in the law all the way along. We sat through that court case believing that right would be done and Ben would walk out a free man. And it never happened.”