Page last updated Saturday 5th October 2013 at 1115hrs
Two years after BBC Scotland’s investigations team first exposed weaknesses in the prosecution, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) has confirmed it is undertaking an active re-examination of the case of 37 year old Glasgow-born Colin Norris (on right of centre picture), the former Leeds nurse and so-called “Angel of Death“. Norris, a graduate of Dundee University, is serving a life sentence at maximum security Frankland Prison near Durham for the murder, or attempted murder, of five elderly women. It was recommended that he serve not less than 30 years. It has been reported that other inmates regularly contaminate his food with bodily fluids and sharpened foil from coffee jars that can be fatal if swallowed.
Campaigners, Inside Justice, hope that fresh medical and scientific evidence published in May 2013 that will lead to the release of Norris. He was convicted at Newcastle Crown Court in 2008 following a 19-week trial. It was alleged by the Crown that “he disliked elderly patients and deliberately injected the women who died with insulin”. At the time, the case drew comparison with that of the late Dr Harold Shipman, who was convicted of murdering fifteen patients but believed to have killed many more.
However, a new study challenges much of the evidence on which Norris was convicted. Inside Justice are hopeful that this fresh evidence will lead to a Court of Appeal hearing in which it can be shown that the women could have died of natural causes. It is summarised in a new booklet A Jury Blinded by Science: the Case of Colin Norris.
In November 2002, 86-year-old Ethel Hall was admitted to Leeds General Infirmary with a broken hip. She had suffered from pernicious anaemia for more than twenty years and had a long history of falling unconscious for which no medical cause had been found. After the operation she lapsed into a deep coma, with irreversible brain damage, and died the following month. A postmortem examination concluded she had suffered brain damage consistent with severe hypoglycaemia.
An investigation was set up by West Yorkshire Police under the direction of the Force’s top detective, Chief Superintendent Chris Gregg (pictured above right), who had 18 months earlier carried out a review of the twenty-two West Yorkshire deaths in the Shipman case. During the Norris investigation, hospital staff told detectives that Norris had commented: “I don’t think Ethel looks right”, and had remarked previously “Whenever I do nights, someone dies.” Norris was arrested and questioned under caution for twenty-nine hours by police, but released without charge. He answered all questions freely, denying that he given Ethel an insulin injection, or did anything else to harm her. Afterwards, nursing colleagues arranged a party in a Leeds pub to demonstrate their solidarity with him.
Sixteen months later, in May 2003, Norris was interviewed about the other deaths after West Yorkshire Police had completed research into 72 other fatalities in the two wards where Norris had worked. His lawyer at the time, Jim Littlehales, says Norris came over as having nothing to hide and did not exercise his right to silence during police questioning. One death they looked into was that of Lucy Rowell, an elderly woman with diabetes. Police visited Mrs Rowell’s family and told them they were investigating the death as a potential murder carried out by a male nurse. But, nearly a year later, when it became clear to the police that Norris was not on duty at the material time, the death transformed from “Suspicious to non-suspicious” according to Mrs Rowell’s granddaughter. That may give an important clue about the mindset of the West Yorkshire detectives. The four other patients Norris was interviewed in connection with were: Vera Wilby, aged 90; Bridget Bourke, aged 89; Doris Ludlam, aged 80; and Irene Crooks, aged 78. However, it was not until October 2005, following a routine bail surrender visit to Killingbeck Police Station that he was charged with four murders and one attempted murder. Remarkably, the mother of uPSD’s investigative journalist, Neil Wilby, bears the same name as one of the victims and is of a similar age. Thankfully, Mrs Vera Wilby of Pontefract is still alive and well. The police investigation cost £373,000 in overtime payments alone – shared out between 62 detectives and support officers.
Immediately after being charged Colin Norris was taken to Wakefield high-security prison and held there for six months until his release on £100,000 bail was arranged. It was to be two years after he was charged before he eventually stood trial. Much of the Court evidence was confined to witness testimony from medical and scientific experts, with the Crown’s case, led by Paul Greaney QC, relying on the proposition that the hypoglycaemia was only explicable by injections of insulin. The defence barrister Paul Williams, however, argued that there was no evidence of unlawful injections in four of the five cases and challenged the lab results in the fifth case. Norris was convicted by the jury on an 11-1 majority after which the ‘arrogant and manipulative man with a real dislike of elderly patients’
The findings were challenged in a 2011 film, A Jury in the Dark, made by former Rough Justice producer Louise Shorter and BBC Scotland’s lead investigative journalist Mark Daly (pictured top left). The film claimed there were logical, non-criminal explanations for all the deaths. Daly comments: “From my own perspective, having investigated miscarriage cases for more than a decade – this is one of the most troubling cases I have ever seen. The central plank of the prosecution is that hypoglycaemia in non-diabetic cases is so rare as to be highly suspicious. The science now casts grave doubt on that claim. If that plank disappears – the case against Norris is based on very little indeed and must be looked at again”.
Professor Vincent Marks, a leading expert on insulin poisoning, who prepared a report for Norris’s Manchester based lawyer, Jeremy Moore, has concluded that, far from being extremely rare, spontaneous hypoglycaemia among non-diabetic elderly patients is relatively common. It has always been Mr Moore’s contention that the police “cherry-picked” the cases relating to his client. Substantial new evidence is being launched this week in a booklet published by Inside Justice, an organisation that examines potential miscarriages of justice, and associated with the prison newspaper, Inside Time. The campaign to free Colin Norris is also assisted by the formidable talents of Jeffrey Samuels QC.
The new evidence comes from the geriatric medicine department at Rotherham General Hospital and the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Postgraduate Medical School, which has published a review that concludes that “hypoglycaemia is not uncommon in hospitalised non-diabetic older people” with other serious conditions. The study contradicts expert evidence at Norris’s trial that non-diabetic hypoglycaemia was “vanishingly rare”. The booklet also raises numerous anomalies relating to a blood test on a sample taken from Hall that led to the initial police investigation.
“The crown’s entire case against Colin was based on the assumption that low blood sugar among non-diabetics is – to quote one prosecution expert – ‘vanishingly rare’,” said Paul May, of the Free Colin Norris campaign. “This has now been shown to be a fallacy.” May, who has worked on some of the biggest miscarriages-of-justice cases in recent times, said: “I chaired the London-based campaign for the Birmingham Six. At the time of their arrest, police said to them ‘it’s not us, it’s the scientists’ who stated that some of the Six handled explosives. Three decades later, West Yorkshire officers used virtually the same words to Colin Norris when claiming he murdered patients in his care with insulin”.
Rough Justice’s Louise Shorter said: “There is no direct evidence that Colin Norris, who before this had not so much as stepped into a police station, hurt anyone. The trial was created out of one inadequate blood test from which a case, based on a medical fallacy, was built. We now know the medical evidence at trial was wrong. We hope the CCRC will refer his case back to the Court of Appeal before Colin loses too much more of his life.” It was also revealed during Paul May and Louise Shorter’s investigations that at least six women who were never looked after by Norris, at all, died from hypoglycaemia in the hospitals where he worked in the same period. Operation Bevel, the West Yorkshire Police inquiry into the alleged murders at Leeds General Infirmary and St James’s Hospital, took no account of these further deaths. Apparently, officers were fixated on Norris as a suspect.
A Rough Justice investigation also led to the clearing of another West Yorkshire Police miscarriage of justice victim, Anthony Steel, who served 26 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. The fixation on a single suspect by senior detectives was also a feature of the Steel case. Read more by clicking here.
Norris’s mother, June Morrison (pictured above centre with second husband Raymond), speaking in May 2013 on ITV’s Daybreak, said she was hopeful his case would now be referred back to the Court of Appeal. “It is so strong, the new evidence, hopefully people will take a good look at it and hopefully we can get it back to the Court of Appeal,” she said. Speaking about his experiences in prison, she said: “We have never been in trouble with the police, we have never had any dealings of that sort. So, to throw someone from that into a category A prison – it has been very difficult for him”.
She added: “He has had to change his way of thinking. He is always looking over his shoulder still, that is part of the regime, that is what he has got to do. He has got to deal with what happens every day in prison. I am out here trying to deal with making more people aware.”
West Yorkshire Police told the BBC in 2011: “Norris was arrested, prosecuted and on the basis of the evidence presented to the court he was convicted and sentenced.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Gregg left West Yorkshire Police after the Norris trial. He was head of the elite HMET (Homicide and Major Enquiry Team) at the time. He had served for 33 years and worked on the discredited Yorkshire Ripper enquiry within a few years of joining the force. He now advises a worldwide science services company, LGC Forensic, working from their Leeds office. On the day of his retirement Gregg said the convictions of Yorkshire Ripper ‘Hoaxer’ John Humble, Colin Norris and David Bieber, the murderer of PC Ian Broadhurst, were among the most satisfying of his long career with the Force.
Chief Constable at the time, the now disgraced Sir Norman Bettison, said: “Chris stands alongside some of the great investigators that West Yorkshire Police has had. He is going to be a hard act to follow.”