John Mullin: Justice is put in the dock

Colin Norris was jailed for 30 years in 2008 for killing four elderly patients, including Ethel Hall. Picture: PA
Colin Norris was jailed for 30 years in 2008 for killing four elderly patients, including Ethel Hall. Picture: PA
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Jurors have cast doubt on the conviction of a Glasgow nurse for murdering patients. It wouldn’t be the first time such doubts have led to innocent men being freed, writes John Mullin

When my former BBC colleague Mark Daly goes about his business, it is always wise to watch, listen and learn. You may have missed his fabulous Panorama programme on Colin Norris, the Glasgow nurse now seven years into a recommended minimum sentence of 30 years for murdering four patients and trying to kill another at hospitals in Leeds in 2002. It screened just before Christmas, so you have a ready-made excuse. But it’s still on iPlayer, so get watching.

One man – crucial to the story – was so impressed that he contacted the BBC. This week, he told reporter James Cook that were the prosecution to attempt to mount a case today, with all the new evidence Daly had marshalled available, then it would never even make it to court.

The reason he is key? Paul Moffitt was the foreman of the jury at Newcastle Crown Court in 2008 which convicted Norris after a five-month trial – interestingly, on a majority verdict. Never a day has passed in the intervening years without him thinking about the Norris case, he told Cook off camera.

That squared with the immediate impression he gave as a decent citizen who took such responsibilities seriously, and Moffitt is the second juror to indicate he believed the Norris convictions should be quashed. Juror number eight said as much in Daly’s Panorama last month.

A little context: police were called after Ethel Hall, 86, died at Leeds General Hospital in 2002. She was found to have an abnormally low blood sugar count – to be hypoglycaemic – and had an apparently large amount of insulin in her system.

This was shortly after the Harold Shipman convictions. The Hyde GP had been found guilty of the murders of 15 of his elderly patients, and was believed responsible for killing 200 more. The officer who led the Shipman review, Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Gregg, took charge of the Hall inquiry, and it is easy to imagine what must have been going through his mind.

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Officers found that, in a six-month period, three more elderly patients who had died had also suffered from low blood sugar, as had another who had recovered. None was found to have had any insulin in their system, but they were presumed to have been illicitly injected.

When they discovered that Norris had been on duty when all these patients had died, alarm bells began to clang. On hearing that he had once joked to colleagues that patients kept dying on his watch (though this was dismissed by one of Norris’s colleagues as the black humour nurses share), DCS Greig believed they had their killer.

What Daly’s evidence shows is medical science has moved on since the trial. It is possible that Hall’s condition was a naturally occurring one. There are also fresh doubts over the blood sample taken. And Norris – somehow secretly – would have had to inject up to a litre of insulin to achieve the recorded reading.

Expert testimony too now suggests low blood sugar readings in the elderly and sick occur naturally and are much more common than was then supposed. Such a cluster of cases over six months, the new evidence suggests, would not be not unusual.

Then there is the troubling sixth patient, who also died after a similar hypoglycaemic episode. This profile fitted the others. Except Norris was not on duty when she died. Did the police ignore this because it didn’t fit with the theory? Why was it not disclosed to the defence?

Watching Moffitt speak out took me back to a mild-mannered accountant I first met almost a quarter of a century ago.

Tim O’Malley too was a jury foreman: he had helped to convict four men of the September 1978 murder of Carl Bridgewater, a 13-year-old paperboy shot dead when he was unfortunate enough to interrupt a robbery in progress at Yew Tree Farm, in Stourbridge, Staffordshire.

Back then, I covered such stories for the Guardian – the Birmingham Six, the Maguire Seven, Tottenham Three and more beyond. I had discovered it was easy enough to nip into jail as a family friend, scribble some notes and get some fantastic exclusive interviews.

But I always wanted to eyeball those who were claiming wrongful conviction, and see whether the evidence that pointed to their innocence rang true. You might think that would be difficult: in truth, it wasn’t.

When convinced they were victims of a miscarriage of justice, I wanted to help. And so it was with Jimmy Robinson, Vincent Hickey, and his cousin, Michael, over Carl Bridgewater’s killing.

But there was a dead end in finding new evidence. There had long been enough to quash the convictions, but that wasn’t really how it worked: certainly, not back then.

I doorstepped O’Malley, the foreman. He was gentle and thoughtful, and, like Paul Moffitt, it was immediately clear how seriously he had taken his responsibilities.

He had been convinced of the defendants’ guilt, but with all that had come out since, he was now sure of their innocence. And yes, he was willing to say that in print.

It was very brave, for, as I recall, there was then no real precedent for a juror speaking out in public. He was then in his mid-forties with two young boys. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 is pretty tough and, although he was at pains never to discuss what happened in the jury room, it was quite conceivable O’Malley could have gone to jail.

The wheels of justice in Britain always did grind slow. But, as they were always going to be, the Bridgewater convictions were finally quashed, early in 1997.

Watching Paul Moffitt prompted me to track down O’Malley after all this time. He is 67 now, still happily married to Jan, and their boys, Will and Tom, are 32 and 26. He’s still working too.

“For me, the duties of being the foreman of a jury didn’t end when I delivered our verdicts,” he said. “It’s been with me ever since.

“I’ve never regretted for a moment speaking out. I don’t know if it did help, but I was elated when the convictions were quashed.

“I am very pleased Paul Moffitt has spoken out. He will be too.”

Let us give thanks to Tim O’Malley and Paul Moffitt, who take their civic responsibilities more seriously than the rest of us will ever have to. They do us all a great service.