Woman campaigns over son's death: Medical progress that kept a brain-dead assault victim alive for over a year helped his assailant escape a murder charge. Chris Blackhurst reports

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The Independent Online
EVEN detectives were shocked by the senselessness of the attack.

Michael Gibson, 20, and his younger brother, David, were walking in Darlington with a friend. It was 10.15pm on a Friday in April last year. The lads were on their way to a nightclub.

They passed three men, one of whom took his jacket off and handed it to his mates. He said something; Michael ignored him. The man said it again. They turned; Michael was repeatedly punched. Witnesses said he was 'felled like a tree' and one heard a crack as his head hit the pavement.

The attackers ran off. Michael started choking. David reached inside his unconscious brother's mouth and moved his tongue. He was rushed to Middlesbrough General Hospital where he was revived after his heart stopped.

Today, his grieving mother, Pat, wishes he had been allowed to die.

Instead, he lived in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) in Darlington Memorial Hospital for 16 months until August, when his twisted, crippled body finally succumbed to pneumonia.

By then it was too late: under a 17th-century law, which decrees a victim must have died within 366 days of receiving his injuries for a murder or manslaughter charge to be brought, the man who hit him could not be charged with his killing. Michael lived for more than a year and a day after the attack, so, in May, David Clark, who ended his life, was sentenced to two years imprisonment for causing grievous bodily harm. After being held on remand for 13 months, with good behaviour he should be released next month.

Mrs Gibson and Alan Milburn, MP for Darlington, are pressing for the law to be changed. In Michael's case, said his mother, the year and a day rule was made to look foolish because she was told within weeks that he would never recover. 'The neurosurgeon knew quite quickly. Within a week or two they were aware how devastating his brain injury was. I didn't need a doctor - I could tell by the way his hands were bent and the way they were feeding him through tubes that he would never make it.'

The police, she claimed, were as angry as she was that Clark could not be charged with the more serious offence. He was kept on remand to see if her son died within a year and a day.

While her son lay in hospital - she visited him every day - Mrs Gibson assumed her son's attacker would be made to pay for his crime. 'I thought the law and justice would take care of him. But the law has aided and abetted him in getting away with it.'

Clark avoided a longer sentence because of a law invented 'when they didn't have neurosurgeons and technology to keep people alive'.

'Even 30 years ago, Michael would not have survived. Until we allow euthanasia people like Clark are going to get away with it.'

In May, Mr Milburn wrote to the Home Office seeking a legal review. He said that thanks to medical advances, PVS patients like Mr Gibson and Tony Bland, the Hillsborough coma victim, can be kept alive for many years. David Maclean, a junior minister, replied in September that the Government had no plans to change the law but would ask the Law Commission to look into the matter.

'The commission's involvement is a small step forward in changing a law that takes no account of medical advances. The law is antiquated and cannot deliver justice,' Mr Milburn said.

(Photographs omitted)

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