A retired GP was today cleared of murdering three of his patients by injecting them with massive overdoses of morphine.

Dr Howard Martin, 71, was acquitted of killing Frank Moss, 59, Harry Gittins and Stanley Weldon, both 74, by a jury of six men and six women at Teeside Crown Court.

The retired Army officer, of Beach Road, Penmaenmawr, Gwynedd, North Wales, who practised as a GP at surgeries in Co Durham, had denied all three charges.

There were gasps and loud outcries as the jury foreman answered not guilty to all three charges.

Members of dead men's families rushed out of court in shock at the verdicts.

Dr Martin's second wife, Theresa, 80, burst into tears as the jury delivered their verdicts.

She was comforted by family members.

The public and press galleries were full in a tense Courtroom 2 as everyoneawaited the jury's verdicts after six hours of deliberations.

On day 33 of the murder trial the jury foreman stood up and answered not guilty to all three charges.

Dr Martin, who was wearing a brown coat, sat quietly in the dock as the foreman returned the verdicts.

The families of Mr Moss, Mr Weldon and Mr Gittins filled the public galleryevery day for the seven-week trial.

They heard Anthony Arlidge QC, for Dr Martin, tell the jury the prosecution had failed to prove that the doses of morphine and diamorphine had killed the three men.

The barrister said neither had the Crown proved the experienced family GP knew exactly what effects the drugs would have on his seriously-ill patients.

Dr Martin did not take to the witness stand and nor did he instruct Mr Arlidge to justify his actions.

The barrister relied upon the testimony of expert witnesses who said the three men were close to death.

The QC also called upon evidence from former patients who spoke of the kindness the Christian doctor showed to them.

But when Dr Martin was questioned by detectives last summer he gave them a number of pre-prepared statements detailing his surprise at the allegations.

He told the officers: "This has come as a total and awful shock. I have been under constant strain over the past year."

The prosecution alleged Dr Martin had administered huge doses of powerful pain killing drugs with the intention of killing Mr Moss, Mr Weldon and Mr Gittins.

Prosecutor Robert Smith QC said Dr Martin deliberately intended to kill the three men.

Opening the case for the Crown, he told the jury: "Each of these patients was entitled to determine their own destiny and it was not for Dr Martin to determine when and under what circumstances they should die."

The elderly doctor was, at the time of the deaths, a partner in the Jubilee Medical Group in Newton Aycliffe, Co Durham.

The married father-of-four was cleared of murdering Mr Moss on March 14, 2003, Mr Weldon four days later and Mr Gittins on January 22 last year.

Dr Martin was arrested after Mr Gittins' family raised concerns over his treatment.

The court heard the father-of-two was suffering from cancer of the oesophagus and had returned to his home in Newton Aycliffe after receiving hospital treatment.

On January 21 last year, Dr Martin visited the retired engineer and administered three 60mg doses of a combination of morphine and diamorphine over a period of 15 hours. He died the following day.

Mr Moss, of New Row, Eldon, near Bishop Auckland, was terminally ill with lung cancer.

On March 13, 2003, Dr Martin twice visited the forestry worker at his home and injected him with two 60mg doses of morphine over a ten-hour period. Mr Moss died at about 4.30am the next day.

Former miner Stanley Weldon, of Kimberley Street, Coundon Grange, suffered from severe dementia, had lost his ability to talk and was frail.

The jury heard that, at the time of his death, he was residing in the Greenfields House nursing home in Newton Aycliffe.

He was seen by Dr Martin at the home, in March 2003, who noted he was suffering from breathing difficulties and administered large doses of morphine.

He died four days after Mr Moss.

Mr Justice Forbes thanked the jury for their careful deliberation and said theywere exempt from jury service for 15 years.

He told them: "It only remains for me to thank you most sincerely for having discharged with such distinction your heavy responsibilities as jurors in this difficult and tragic case."

He added: "This has been a very difficult, complex and distressing case and all of us who have been involved or have been present during the course of this trial cannot fail to be deeply impressed by the great care with which you have discharged your duties."

The judge did not address Dr Martin who by this time had left the dock and was sitting at the back of the court with his solicitor.

Outside court Dr Martin's solicitor Sara Mason said the murder charges were a "bitter blow" after almost 50 years as a medic.

In a statement, she said: "Dr Martin has always maintained he was doing no more than doing his best to relieve the suffering of these three patients.

"He was legally entitled to do that and indeed it was his duty as their doctor to do that.

"Being prosecuted for murder came as a particularly bitter blow as he has spent nearly 50 years of his life caring for others, at personal sacrifice.

"He would like to thank his family, friends and very many of his patients for their unwavering support over the ordeal of the last 18 months.

"Dr Martin is now looking forward to going home."

After his solicitor finished reading the prepared statement, Dr Martin briefly answered reporters' questions.

He said: "I am relieved, very relieved. I've had a year and a half under house arrest and eight weeks of hell on earth."

Dr Martin refused to answer question about whether the prosecution should ever have been brought in the first place.