The surgeon who admitted killing a patient during an operation walked free from the Old Bailey today after a judge gave him a suspended prison sentence.

The surgeon who admitted killing a patient during an operation walked free from the Old Bailey today after a judge gave him a suspended prison sentence.

Judge Sir Stephen Mitchell said the Blackpool Victoria Hospital had not done enough to stop Steven Walker operating on patients.

Walker, 47, of Camberley, Surrey, looked straight ahead as the judge sentenced him to 21 months, suspended for two years.

Last week, he pleaded guilty to the manslaughter of Dorothy McPhee, 71, during a liver operation in 1995.

Mrs McPhee lost 36 pints of blood following the operation which Walker was notqualified to do.

He carried on operating on patients until the end of 1998 and the General Medical Council found he had been professionally negligent in ten operations.

Sir Stephen said he was suspending the sentence because of the exceptional circumstances which involved "lamentable systemic failure".

He said: "The hospital trust failed to act with the vigour that the public is entitled to expect."

He said this was compounded by the coroner's failure to order an inquest into Mrs McPhee's death and an "in-house post mortem" which had been "misleading".

Sir Stephen said there had been "an astonishing delay" in setting up a determined investigation.

He told Walker: "It was not your fault that you were allowed to go on operating, subject to restrictions, for another two years.

"Much of the evidence of these events was known at the time and the balance of the evidence was so easily discoverable had it occurred to anyone to make elementary inquiries."

The judge added: "This conviction will undoubtedly have a devastating effect on your medical career and your future.

"You are very obviously a decent man and a man of considerable ability.

"In my judgment your one acute personal failing is that you seemed to have insufficient appreciation of your limitations as a surgeon."

Walker had faced three charges of manslaughter but they were not proceeded withwhen he changed his plea.

Stephen Miller QC, defending, said there had been a culture in hospitals at the time of allowing the consultant to make his own decisions.

Walker believed he was doing his best for Mrs McPhee in deciding to continue with the operation.

Mr Miller added: "The decision to carry on was not wicked. It was a misjudgment."

He had now lost his home and his career, and an intolerable strain had been put on his marriage.

"His career, and his life, is in ruins," added Mr Miller.

The trial was told that during Mrs McPhee's long operation, Walker turned his back on the dying woman to have his picture taken.

Rebecca Poulet QC, prosecuting, said other staff were horrified to see Walker spread out the section of liver he had removed to be photographed for research work.

He then asked for a picture of himself to be taken in his bloody gown.Miss Poulet said: "You may think it showed a terrible disregard for his patient."

Carl Elias, a theatre technician, said: "When they were taking photographs of the liver, he asked for a photograph to be taken of him with his gown covered in blood.

"Personally, I thought it was inappropriate because of the way the procedure had gone.

"With that amount of bleeding and everything else that had gone on, it was not the time to be glorifying."

Walker admitted he should not have gone on with the operation after finding the tumour was twice the size that he had expected and near major blood vessels.

Walker became a consultant at the hospital in 1995 but was suspended in January 1999.

He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct by the General Medical Council following a series of botched operations which left four women dead and others maimed.

The GMC's disciplinary panel was told 16 anaesthetists at the hospital refused to work with him.

He was struck off the medical register in November 2001 for performing surgery "beyond the limit" of his confidence and skill.

Walker appealed and a year later the GMC restored his name to the register on condition that he did not perform operations.

But a police investigation was launched into the deaths and Walker was again suspended in July 2003 after he was charged.

He then lost a job with the Ministry of Defence advising on medical procedures for surviving battle injuries.

Walker left court today without commenting.