UK

Dr David Kelly: Controversial death examined

Dr David Kelly
Image caption Dr Kelly was the source of a BBC report casting doubt on government claims about Iraq's weapons

The government has rejected calls for an inquest into the 2003 death of government scientist Dr David Kelly. A group of doctors is taking the case to the High Court.

Who was Dr David Kelly?

In 2003, weapons expert Dr David Kelly was thrust into the media spotlight after being identified in newspapers as the man the government believed was the source for a controversial BBC report on Iraq.

The scientist was used to talking to journalists behind the scenes but he now became a key figure in the row between the government and the BBC over claims Downing Street had "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons capability.

The BBC report, in May 2003, cast doubt on the government's claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed within 45 minutes.

After he was named in newspapers, Dr Kelly gave evidence to MPs' committees in which he said he did not believe he was the main source of the story.

Two days after his testimony, the 59-year-old was found dead in woodland a few miles from his Oxfordshire home after apparently taking his own life.

His wife Janice later told the inquiry into his death that her husband had been utterly dismayed by the media frenzy around him.

Dr Kelly had spent the majority of his career as a consultant to the MoD and other government departments and agencies, advising them on his area of expertise - arms control.

He had worked as a weapons inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998, following the first Gulf War, earning a nomination for a Nobel peace prize.

After his death, the BBC confirmed the scientist had been its principal contact for the report claiming the Iraq dossier had been "sexed up".

What hearings have there been into his death?

On the day Dr Kelly's body was discovered, then Prime Minister Tony Blair asked Lord Hutton to conduct an urgent investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death.

Unusually, the inquest opened into Dr Kelly's death was never completed.

Lord Hutton released his findings in January 2004, reporting that the scientist had committed suicide by slashing his wrist with a blunt gardening knife.

The report found that a severe loss of self-esteem for Dr Kelly, due to a feeling that people had lost trust in him and his dismay at media exposure, was probably the major factor behind him taking his own life.

Lord Hutton requested that the details of the post-mortem examination and toxicology tests be classified for 70 years - to protect the privacy of the Kelly family.

But, in October last year, the government sought to end continuing speculation over Dr Kelly's death by releasing the reports which backed up Lord Hutton's verdict.

What evidence is there for the cause of death?

The evidence released last October included the report by pathologist Dr Nicholas Hunt, who had attended the scene where Dr Kelly's body was found in July 2003.

At the post-mortem examination, he found a series of wounds on Dr Kelly's left wrist which had "completely severed" the ulnar artery.

Dr Hunt reported: "The orientation and arrangement of the wounds over the left wrist are typical of self-inflicted injury."

He added: "There is no positive pathological evidence to indicate that this man has been subjected to a sustained, violent assault prior to his death.

"There is no evidence from the post-mortem or my observations at the scene to indicate that the deceased had been dragged or otherwise transported to the location at which his body was found."

The time of death was estimated to be between 16:15 BST on 17 July and 01:15 BST on 18 July.

While the wrist wounds were found to be the main cause of death, Dr Hunt added that an excessive amount of painkillers Dr Kelly had taken and "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".

Why have there been calls for an inquest?

A group of doctors has mounted a long-running campaign for the inquest into Dr Kelly's death to be re-opened, arguing that Lord Hutton's suicide verdict was unsafe.

They complain that Lord Hutton spent only half a day of his 24-day inquiry considering the cause of death and claim there was insufficient evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Dr Kelly killed himself.

"No coroner in the land would have reached a suicide verdict on the evidence which Lord Hutton heard," they say.

They believe Dr Kelly's wrist wounds were not likely to be life-threatening, making the official cause of death - a haemorrhage - "extremely unlikely".

They say unanswered questions surrounding the death remain, including:

  • why no fingerprints were found on the knife apparently used to slit his wrist
  • how Dr Kelly obtained a packet of coproxamol painkillers
  • why his blood and stomach contained only a non-toxic dose of the drug
  • why he was not spotted by a police helicopter with thermal imaging cameras which flew over the wood where his body was later found
  • whether he intended to kill himself

In September last year they petitioned Attorney General Dominic Grieve for the re-opening of inquiries.

It "may represent one of the gravest miscarriages of justice to occur in this country", the doctors said in a letter in March appealing to Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene on their behalf.

But, in June 2011, Mr Grieve rejected the doctors' petition. He said his department had thoroughly investigated their complaints and could not find any legal basis for referring the case to the High Court, which has the legal authority to order an inquest.

In September 2011, the doctors confirmed they had lodged papers to seek a judicial review of the decision not to hold an inquest into the death of Dr Kelly - this is being heard at the High Court on 19 December.

Why has the government not ordered an inquest?

Mr Grieve told MPs: "Having given all the material that's been sent to me the most careful consideration, I've concluded that the evidence that Dr Kelly took his own life is overwhelmingly strong.

"Further, there is nothing I've seen that supports any allegation that Dr Kelly was murdered or that his death was the subject of any kind of conspiracy or cover-up."

There was no "evidential basis" to refer the case to the High Court, he told MPs, adding that it would have been "dismissed" by judges "with what I would assume would be a certain amount of irritation".

The attorney general argued that Lord Hutton's inquiry had been "tantamount to an inquest".

Following the government's decision, the doctors who had petitioned Mr Grieve called for his resignation.

Campaign leader Dr Stephen Frost said: "The continuing cover-up of the truth of what happened is a national disgrace and should be of concern to all British citizens."

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