A retired family doctor has been cleared of murdering three of his patients by administering massive doses of morphine while visiting them in their homes.
Howard Martin, 71, who practised as a GP in Co Durham, was accused of "deliberately terminating" the lives of Harry Gittins, 70, Frank Moss, 59, and Stanley Weldon, 79. All were seriously but not terminally ill.
A jury at Teesside Crown Court acquitted Dr Martin of the charges yesterday after he had claimed he was "simply easing the suffering" of the three men.
The verdict was met with gasps and loud cries as the jury foreman answered not guilty to all three charges. Members of the dead men's families rushed out of court in shock. Dr Martin's second wife, Theresa, 80, burst into tears and was comforted by family members.
Harry Gittins' daughter Jillian Coates, who triggered the police investigation by raising concerns about the treatment her father received from Dr Martin, said: "We are extremely saddened and disappointed with the not guilty verdicts here today. It has been a very difficult period over the last two years. We still do not know why Dr Martin deemed it necessary to inject my dad with such an excessive cocktail of drugs. Dr Martin has yet to inform us of the reason why, as so far he has refused to answer any questions."
Detective Superintendent Harry Stevenson said he was disappointed with the verdict but added the police were right to investigate the families' complaints: "We had a moral and a legal duty to investigate their allegations. We've done that, the jury have heard the evidence, they've reached a not-guilty verdict and that was their decision."
The case bore similarities to that of Harold Shipman, Britain's most prolific serial killer, who was jailed in 2000 for killing 15 patients by lethal injections of diamorphine. An inquiry later ruled he had probably murdered more than 250. Shipman hanged himself in his prison cell in January 2004.
Dr Martin was alleged to have made a deliberate and unlawful decision to end the lives of his three patients "because their time had come to die". The court was told that he injected the men with 60mg doses of morphine - between six and 12 times the recommended dose.
Mr Gittins' family became suspicious and contacted police, who exhumed the bodies of the three men and found evidence of lethal doses of morphine. Dr Martin was arrested but only answered routine questions and gave prepared statements on each case. Palliative care specialists who acted as expert witnesses said the doses should only have been given to someone minutes before death, but community-GP practices were often behind the times with procedures and dosing was "not an exact science".