Consultant convicted of attempted murder

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A HOSPITAL consultant was yesterday convicted of attempting to murder a terminally ill patient who had repeatedly asked him to help her die.

The 11-1 majority verdict, which confounded all expectations, sent shock waves through Winchester Crown Court. Two of the seven female members of the jury wept openly after it was read out.

Nigel Cox, 47, who had denied the charge, will be sentenced tomorrow. He was given unconditional bail and the judge, Mr Justice Ognall, indicated he was unlikely to send him to jail.

Dr Cox, a consultant rheumatologist at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester, acknowledged giving a lethal dose of potassium chloride to Lillian Boyes, 70, in August last year.

His defending counsel argued, however, that his primary intention had been to alleviate her suffering and not to kill her.

Mrs Boyes, who was in agonising pain with acute rheumatoid arthritis and severe complications, was on the brink of death. Five days earlier, she had decided that she wanted to die. She took herself off medication and asked hospital staff for a drug 'to finish her off'.

Dr Cox, who did not give evidence, was reported to the authorities by a ward sister after he recorded the lethal injection in the patient's medical notes.

Mrs Boyes' two sons, who supported her decision to die, were said to be deeply distressed by the verdict. They had made no complaint against Dr Cox, their mother's consultant for 13 years.

Mr Justice Ognall told the jurors, who took eight hours to reach their decision, that the circumstances of the case had been 'wholly exceptional, if not unique' and that their task had been a very painful one.

'There are times, speaking for myself and, I strongly suspect, for all of you, when a criminal trial is an almost overwhelming burden.'

Ludovic Kennedy, vice-chairman of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said afterwards that he was astonished by the result.

He suggested the verdict would lead to increased pressure for reform of the law: 'This is dreadful for Dr Cox, but I think in the end it may mark a turning point. Public opinion will come to believe that there is something obscene about sentencing a man of his qualifications and compassion.'

Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead and chairman of the Commons select committee on social services, said he hoped Parliament would soon discuss the issue. 'In terms of law the decision of the jury may be correct, but in terms of compassion, both to the patient and the doctor, it is totally lacking.'

Even if Dr Cox - described by the judge as 'a distinguished professional man of unblemished reputation and character' - does not go to jail, his career is effectively over.

His professional future will be decided at a hearing of the General Medical Council, the doctors' disciplinary body, which has been sent a transcript of the court proceedings. But with such a serious conviction against his name, Dr Cox, who has been suspended on full pay, is almost certain to be struck off the medical register.

Fleur Fisher, head of the Ethics, Science and Information division of the British Medical Association, said that the organisation believed active euthanasia should remain illegal, and that the current law best served patients' interests. But she added: 'There may be circumstances . . . where a doctor, compelled by conscience to intervene to end a person's life, will do so, prepared to justify that decision in a court of law.'

Dr Cox's hospital colleagues are deeply sympathetic to his position. Iain Carpenter, a consultant specialising in care of the elderly, said: 'It's the sort of situation where there but for the grace of God go I'

(Photograph omitted)