Lecturer's killer sent to secure mental unit: Judge halts murder trial after ruling on defendant's state of mind

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The Independent Online
A MAN accused of murdering an Open University lecturer by slashing her throat was yesterday sent to a secure mental hospital after his trial was halted.

After hearing evidence from a consultant forensic psychiatrist, the judge, Mr Justice Swinton-Thomas, ruled that Robin Pask, 32, was mentally unfit to mount a defence.

He ordered that Pask, of Horwich, Greater Manchester, be detained in a secure hospital until such time as he is fit to face a further trial for the murder of Dr Elizabeth Howe.

Pask was not in the dock at Leeds Crown Court to hear the judge's ruling that he be detained under Section 41 of the Mental Health Act without a time limit.

Dr Howe, 34, an eminent Oxford graduate and an expert on English Restoration literature, was killed within hours of arriving at York University on 25 July last year, to begin a summer school for Open University students.

Pask admitted to the manslaughter of Dr Howe on grounds of diminished responsibility, but not to her murder.

The court was told that he did not know Dr Howe and was not one of her students. It was chance that he selected her room in Wentworth hall of residence on the campus.

Yesterday, Dr Howe's husband, Jeremy, editor of drama at BBC Radio 3, said that the past few days had been a nightmare for his family. 'I do not want to dwell upon the trial of Robin Pask,' he said.

'I want to remember Lizzie. As my wife and my best friend, as the mother of Jessica and Lucy, a daughter and sister, as an academic and in her last year as a successful writer, Lizzie always found the time and energy in her busy life to give and to care. She was a generous, loving and an incredibly positive person. I hope she remains as an example to us all who knew and loved her.'

The Howes met in 1978 when they were studying English literature at Oxford. After graduating, Mr Howe worked in the Theatre Royal in the city where his wife was eventually to be killed.

The jury in Leeds was told that Pask had forced his way into Dr Howe's room, only a few doors from his own temporary lodgings. He slashed her throat, cut off her dress and then slit her body from her collarbone to her groin. The 28-inch wound he inflicted penetrated her left lung three times and split her heart.

Dr Howe was posthumously awarded the Theatre Library Association of America Award for an outstanding contribution to theatre writing. Her winning book, The First English Actressess: 1660-1700, was published a month after her death.

The Open University has also set up a trust fund for a research place in memory of Dr Howe's work, and by yesterday this had reached pounds 15,000.

In the late Eighties, Dr Howe taught at the Maze and Maghaberry prisons in Northern Ireland and, a month after being seriously ill during the birth of her second daughter, she took her baby to the Queen Mary College, in London, for the viva examination where her Ph. D was confirmed. She had in the past few years taught Open University arts foundation and Shakespeare courses.

Yesterday, Dr Marion Swan, a consultant forensic psychiatrist who examined Pask, told the court that for a long time his thoughts had dwelled on suicide and he had lost the will to live. She confirmed that he would be unable to give evidence in his defence because of his mental illness.

The jury had to be resworn to formally return a verdict that Pask, who is married with three daughters, was unfit to be tried and that he 'did the act' which claimed Dr Howe's life.

Pask remains charged with murder. Stephen Williamson, for the prosecution, said: 'These proceedings are adjourned and in these unfortunate circumstances cannot be continued, and will not until he is fit to be tried or viewed unfit ever to be tried.'