Legal move on 23 more 'Shipman victims'

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw is being urged to allow inquests into the deaths of 23 more suspected victims of Harold Shipman.

John Pollard, the South Manchester coroner, said yesterday he has written to the Home Secretary seeking permission to open inquests into the deaths of 23 of the doctor's elderly female patients. If Mr Straw gives his approval, Shipman, who was jailed for life in January at Preston Crown Court for the murder of 15 of his women patients by lethal injection of diamorphine, could be called to appear at the inquests.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Once were have received the request it will be given full consideration."

The move follows requests by relatives of the 23 dead patients for the cases to be subject to a public hearing. The Crown Prosecution Service ruled not to proceed with charges on the 23 suspected victims because Shipman, from Hyde, Greater Manchester, could not be guaranteed a fair trial.

Mr Pollard said he decided to write to Mr Straw after speaking at length to the investigating officers about the outstanding deaths. He said: "I have taken this course of action based upon the evidence which is presently before me and particularly based upon the fact that it is my understanding that the families and relatives of these deceased are anxious for the evidence related to their deaths to be heard and tested by way of inquest."

Mr Pollard said that in the course of the investigation into the deaths of Shipman's patients, he had ordered a number of exhumations to take place. Nine of those formed the basis of charges against the GP. In three other cases, involving Sarah Ashworth, Alice Kitchen and Elizabeth Mellor, where bodies were exhumed, the police and CPS had decided not to charge Shipman. Inquests were opened and closed into the three deaths in 1998. Mr Pollard said they would be reopened as soon as possible.

He said: "It is my intention to inform Dr Shipman of those inquests and to notify him of his right to attend, subject of course to his being able to make suitable arrangements with the prison authorities for such attendance if he wishes to avail himself of the offer to attend," he added.

Sue McAlpine, 51, whose mother Irene Heathcote, is one of the 23 women, said she would be happy for an inquest to be held. She said: "If they do hold an inquest I will be very pleased, there are an awful lot of questions surrounding this that need to be answered and due to the fact that the inquiry is going to be private, the only way I can get these answers is through an inquest."

The daughter of Bertha Moss, who died at the age of 68 in Shipman's surgery, welcomed efforts to hold an inquest into her mother's death. Helen Blackwell, 48, said: "It's a crumb of comfort. We have not really had much comfort up to now, so I am pleased."

Greater Manchester Police began to investigate Shipman, 54, in March 1998, six months before his eventual arrest, after concerns were raised by a GP from a neighbouring practice in Hyde, Greater Manchester.

He eventually tripped himself up after forging the £386,000 will of Kathleen Grundy, 81. He was arrested in September 1998 and eventually charged with murdering 15 women and with forging Mrs Grundy's will. Shipman, who is serving his sentence at Frankland Prison, Durham, has been investigated in relation to the deaths of nearly 200 patients.