Shipman patient unlawfully killed, coroner rules

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A 74-year-old patient of the convicted murderer Harold Shipman, who "went out like a light" as he treated her, was unlawfully killed, a coroner ruled yesterday.

A 74-year-old patient of the convicted murderer Harold Shipman, who "went out like a light" as he treated her, was unlawfully killed, a coroner ruled yesterday.

Police have always believed that the GP of Hyde, Greater Manchester, who is serving 15 life sentences for murdering female patients, also killed Sarah Ashworth. But they were prevented from taking further cases to court by the Director of Public Prosecution's ruling that the 54-year-old GP would not receive a fair trial.

Instead, it was left to the South Manchester coroner, John Pollard, sitting at Tameside magistrates' court in Ashton-under-Lyne, to record a verdict that Mrs Ashworth was the victim of an "act of killing".

The verdict was greeted with gasps of relief by Mrs Ashworth's daughter, Sarah Goodman, her son, John, and his wife Jane, who all testified in the case, although in law Shipman cannot be named as the killer.

"I am forbidden by law from publicly declaring the identity of the person," Dr Pollard said. But he ordered the death certificate signed by Shipman, which stated that Mrs Ashworth died of natural causes, to be set aside. The death will be re-registered, stating the medical cause to be "unascertained".

Mrs Ashworth is the first of 26 former patients of Shipman to be the subject of an inquest. Dr Pollard said he had heard evidence of "striking similarities" between her death and those of Shipman's 15 victims in the one-and-a-half-day hearing and that it would be "an affront to common sense" to explain them away by mere coincidence.

Mrs Ashworth, a former company director, of Hyde, died in April 1993 and her body was exhumed five years later, after Shipman was arrested and Mr Ashworth became suspicious about her death.

On Tuesday, Mr Ashworth told the court of a telephone call from Shipman on the morning of her death in which the GP claimed to have been summoned by Mrs Ashworth, who had suffered heart failure and "gone out like a light" while sitting on her bed as he treated her. Dr Pollard said there had been "compelling evidence" that Mrs Ashworth, a widow, would not have been able to call the doctor and answer the door to him if she had suffered the heart failure he described on the death certificate.

"The description of her dying, the fact her body was cold 15 minutes after her son attended and the positive sampling of morphine in her body" left unlawful killing as "the only plausible explanation", Dr Pollard said.

In a submission to the coroner, the Ashworth family's barrister, Patrick Field QC, said: "The family are not on a crusade or witch-hunt. Their approach is a dignified one to this inquiry. Their belief, and I submit one based on the most compelling and cogent circumstantial evidence which you have heard, is that Sarah Ashworth was in fact murdered by her GP, Harold Shipman."

The inquest had been told that on the day of Mrs Ashworth's death Shipman had withdrawn in her name a prescription for 30mg of diamorphine, the drug with which he had killed other women. The Home Office pathologist Dr John Rutherford said it would have been dangerous to give morphine to someone in Mrs Ashworth's condition and 30mg would probably have been a lethal dose.

In a statement issued after the verdict, the Ashworths' solicitor, Marc Seddon, said: "The [family's] search for the truth about their mother's death has been a painful necessity. No verdict will bring Mrs Ashworth back but the family are pleased that the record has now been set straight as far as possible for their mother."

Jane Ashton-Hibbert, the granddaughter of Hilda Hibbert, and Susan Bennison, the granddaughter of Edith Brock, said they hoped similar factual evidence would be admissible in the inquests of their relatives due to be held later this year.