Acid case: Boyfriend acquitted of giving fatal 'last toast'

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For 23 minutes Andrew Gardner listened to the agonised cries of his former girlfriend as sulphuric acid ate through her internal organs, before he finally called an ambulance.

For 23 minutes Andrew Gardner listened to the agonised cries of his former girlfriend as sulphuric acid ate through her internal organs, before he finally called an ambulance.

Yesterday, however, he walked from court a free man after a jury decided that the delay was no proof that he had fed Dr Karenina Longe the cup of drain cleaner containing the acid. The prosecution had claimed Dr Longe had been tricked into drinking the acid by her ex-lover, possibly as a "last toast" to the end of their affair.

The "intelligent, vibrant" 27-year-old woman, a senior house doctor at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham, died in that hospital 15 hours later. When she was finally taken there, Mr Gardner chose not to follow. Instead the man described by his own defence as a fickle womaniser went to the pub to drink and talk about football.

But the 40-year-old unemployed lab technician insisted he had not murdered his former girlfriend. Dr Longe, he said, had swallowed the deadly drink herself to commit suicide. "I would never do that to an animal, let alone a human being," he told the court.

Yesterday, after 13 hours of deliberations, the jury at Birmingham Crown Court agreed with Courtenay Griffiths QC, for the defence, that "suspicion was a million miles away from proof" and acquitted him of manslaughter, having already found him not guilty of murder.

As the final verdict was delivered, Nina Longe's mother Carole, 56, shouted from the public gallery: "There's no justice." She added: "This is nonsense, it's absolutely farcical. Where is the justice in the British legal system?" Later she said: "Everybody who knew her knows she was a young woman who had everything to live for."

Mr Gardner's solicitor, Mark Bowen, praised the jury for preventing a miscarriage of justice. The defence insistedthat suicide or an attempt to harm herself was the only explanation based on hard evidence as there was no sign of force, the bottle was clearly visible and Dr Longe never once accused Mr Gardner of giving the acid to her.

Mr Bowen said: "He remains devastated by the suicide of Ms Longe. We believe the prosecution was not based on hard evidence. It was based on pandering to people's emotions. A criminal prosecution should be based on hard evidence."

Born in Nigeria, the second daughter of a barrister and his English wife, Dr Longe had been sent to a Quaker boarding school in West Yorkshire at the age of 13. There she excelled, gaining four A-levels and a Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award and becoming head girl.

She had met Mr Gardner while training to be a doctor at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. The former choirboy and soldier in the Rhodesian army worked as a lab technician at the hospital.

Having graduated with distinction in surgery, Dr Longe went on to work in Colchester and Enfield before moving to Heartlands Hospital, where Mr Gardner joined her with his teenage son John.

Colleagues described her as an exceptional doctor, but at home her relationship was deteriorating. Mr Gardner, the court was told, failed to get a job and began drinking heavily. A few days before her death, Dr Longe told her mother that Mr Gardner had hit her. She left him and moved back home before taking up hospital accommodation.

Just before noon on 5 February, Dr Longe visited the house they had shared in Sheldon, Birmingham. The pair began drinking vodka and Jack Daniels and at some point - for a reason that will remain a mystery - Dr Longe imbibed the drain cleaner, which was 93 to 96 per cent sulphuric acid.

Mr Gardner told police that he had left the cleaner, which he had been using to clear the drains, in a mug near the sink and, either by accident or in a suicidal fit due to work and exam pressures, his former girlfriend had drunk it.

He said they had gone upstairs to make love when she had complained of abdominal pains and admitted swallowing the acid.

Stephen Linehan QC, for the prosecution, called his version of events a "blatant lie". "If Nina Longe had swallowed sulphuric acid, the pain would be so intense and immediate that it would be impossible to conceal it... it would be beyond her to invite the defendant to make love to her," he said.

"Her lips were burnt with the acid. He couldn't have kissed that woman without knowing instantly that there was something in her mouth that was burning," Mr Linehan said.

As she began to writhe in pain, Mr Gardner failed to summon an ambulance. Instead he made several other phone calls, in what he said was his confusion and fear that her career would be ruined if anyone knew she had tried to harm herself.

At 2.03pm he sought advice from a plumber, Paul Smith, insisting falsely that his son had drunk the drain cleaner and an ambulance was on its way.

In fact it was not until 2.26pm - after making a call to another plumber, a non-emergency call to the hospital and one to his son - that he dialled 999.

"Twenty-three minutes, during which time that acid continued its dreadful work and she continued under his eyes and his ears to suffer unimaginable torment as her internal organs were gradually destroyed," Mr Linehan said.

The jury of eight men and four women listened as the emergency tape was played. On it Mr Gardner could be heard saying calmly: "My girlfriend's done something silly" as Dr Longe cried out in the background. He said he had given her milk to make her comfortable.

Mr Gardner later pleaded with surgeons to save his girlfriend, but he told detectives he had decided to go to London - where he used her bank cards and was arrested three weeks later - when doctors informed him she had only a 0.001 per cent chance of living.

It was the senior house doctor's own colleagues who fought to save her life at Heartlands Hospital. Consultant thoracic surgeon Francis Collins said the moment he saw the internal damage he knew she had little chance of survival. Dr Longe died the next morning.