Police 'panicked' into arrest over hospital deaths

Solicitor of freed nurse claims that over-the-top coverage of Stockport case led to hasty decisions

The lawyer acting for the former nurse who he says was wrongly implicated in the deaths of three hospital patients claimed yesterday that police had been "panicked" into arresting and charging his client because of pressure from hospital authorities and the media.

Rebecca Leighton, 27, now plans to fight to restore her career and reputation after her release from custody on Friday, Carl Richmond, her solicitor said yesterday. Miss Leighton was released after the Crown Prosecution Service admitted there was not "sufficient evidence" for the case against her to continue.

She was arrested in July after detectives from Greater Manchester Police were called in to investigate the deaths of three patients at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport.

The three, Tracey Arden, 44, Arnold Lancaster, 71, and Derek Weaver, 83, are all believed to have died after their saline drips were contaminated by insulin. Miss Leighton, of Heaviley, Stockport, a night-shift sister on the ward where all three victims died, was arrested three days after police were called in. She has always denied the allegations but was charged with six counts of criminal damage and one of theft.

Mr Richmond, of Middleweeks Solicitors, said evidence in the case was "unclear" from the outset, adding that up to 40 people could have been charged over fingerprints found on several items including saline bags.

Outlining why he believed Miss Leighton had been singled out, Mr Richmond said: "It was based on a shift pattern and her ability to be able to do it. There were umpteen other people who also fitted those criteria. For me, the police were pressured by the hospital because of the chaos there. It was not known who was responsible and the fact that some of the media coverage was really over the top, like 'Angel of Death' – I think it forced their hand.

"Ordinarily suspects are interviewed and receive police bail while inquires continue. They seem to have panicked to charge her straight away and think about the consequences afterwards," he said.

Greater Manchester Police yesterday declined to comment on his claims but have defended their decision to bring the charges.

The solicitor confirmed Miss Leighton, who previously enjoyed an exemplary career, now plans to challenge a Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) decision to suspend her from its register and is working with the Royal College of Nursing to clear her name.

She was found with hospital antibiotics, ibuprofen and bandages when arrested, he said: "To prosecute for that, they would have to prosecute almost every doctor and nurse in the country. It was not hard drugs. We're talking about antibiotics, because she worked five nights on the trot and was getting a throat infection. She was told to take them home and take them. That's why it's been dropped because it is simply not in the public interest."

In a statement, Miss Leighton said she had been "living in hell and was locked up in prison for something I had not done." She said all she had ever wanted to do was "pursue a profession in nursing, and care for my patients".

A trust source said that previously low staffing levels have improved across its hospitals, but added that it was not clear for how long.

"There are a lot more security checks. Only one nurse in charge is allowed the main key into drugs rooms. Security has been upped terribly," the source said. "Saline wasn't checked before, it came in and was locked in a cupboard. Now it is checked when it comes on to wards by two nurses who squeeze them to check there are no puncture holes."

Police admitted they are now investigating a total of 40 cases of contamination, including a further four suspicious deaths. Relatives of these four, whose identities have not been released, have been told by police that the deaths had been referred to the coroner.

Police said the Stepping Hill inquiry was now as big and as complex as the 1996 Manchester bomb investigation. Officers said they had interviewed 200 of the 700 people they wish to speak to, including hospital staff, visitors and patients.