'Traumatised' Stockport death charge nurse in hiding

The nurse freed after spending six weeks in prison charged with contaminating saline at Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport was in hiding yesterday after leaving her parents' home.

Rebecca Leighton's solicitor, Carl Richmond, said his client had fled the house where she sought refuge following her release from Styal Women's Prison in Cheshire on Friday when the Crown Prosecution Service dropped charges against her.

Neighbours said Miss Leighton and her family waited for reporters to leave the close in Denton, Manchester, where they have a semi-detached house, before slipping away on Saturday evening. She is understood to be staying with relatives as the investigation into seven deaths at the hospital continues.

"They just wanted to get away, it is not easy having press and TV cameras camped on your doorstep," said a neighbour. "I think they want time together to think about what they do next. I know they are very upset Rebecca was locked up for so long without any real evidence against her. It has been a frightening experience."

Mr Richmond said that he would meet his client later this week to discuss whether to pursue a civil case for damages against the police. He said Ms Leighton had been made a "scapegoat" and was still traumatised from her time in prison. "This has been a living nightmare for Rebecca," he said.

Police indicated that Ms Leighton had not been ruled out of the investigation into the patients' deaths. Assistant Chief Constable Terry Sweeney, who has defended the decision to charge Miss Leighton, said: "Nobody has been discounted at this point in time."

Greater Manchester Police is planning to interview about 500 more people, including staff, patients and visitors, out of more than 700 who could have had access to the area during the time the tampering may have taken place. Detectives investigating the deaths connected with sabotaged saline drips have said there is a "high probability" that two of the deaths were caused by contaminated products.

Arnold Lancaster, 71, Tracey Arden, 44, and Derek Weaver, 83, all died at Stepping Hill and police believe up to four more deaths could have resulted from saline ampoules being contaminated with insulin.

Mr Richmond said police "jumped the gun" in charging Ms Leighton with causing criminal damage with intent to endanger life, two days after she was arrested at her flat on 20 July. "The hospital was struggling to function – it suited them that someone was named as the culprit," he said. "And the Nursing and Midwifery Council were very quick to act [in suspending her] without analysing how the case is progressing. Rebecca Leighton wants her professional name restored, but one of her decisions for the future is whether or not she wants to continue working in nursing anyway."

During the bail application last month, it emerged the evidence against the nurse amounted to her fingerprint being on a saline bag thought to have been damaged by a needle. Mr Richmond said: "Police concluded it had, in fact, not been damaged. We then had fingerprints of other individuals on other contaminated items but my client's fingerprints were not on them."

Simon Csoka, barrister for Ms Leighton, said: "The evidence against her was very circumstantial." But he added that Ms Leighton will be able to bring a civil case against the police only if she can show, "malice rather than negligence" in charging her.

Heightened security measures remain in place at Stepping Hill. A spokeswoman for the Nursing and Midwifery Council said the interim order suspending Ms Leighton will remain.

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