Skeptics Doubt Ruling on U.K. Arms Aide
By BETH GARDINER
The Associated Press
Saturday, February 21, 2004; 10:00 AM
LONDON - The death of a British weapons inspector was ruled a suicide by a judge who investigated the political storm over intelligence on Iraqi weapons.
But some skeptics are questioning that verdict, arguing that it's unlikely government scientist David Kelly bled to death from a self-inflicted cut to his wrist.
The critics rebuff accusations that they're conspiracy theorists, and few offer any thoughts on how Kelly might have died if not by his own hand.
Senior judge Lord Hutton concluded in his January report on Kelly's death that the scientist killed himself, distressed that he'd been thrust into the crossfire of a battle between the government and the British Broadcasting Corp. over allegations that officials exaggerated evidence on Iraqi weapons to justify war.
Kelly's body was found in July, leaning against a tree in the woods near his Oxfordshire home, his left wrist slashed and a nearly empty pack of painkillers nearby.
The scientist had been publicly identified days before as the source of a BBC report that quoted him anonymously as accusing the government of "sexing up" evidence in a September 2002 dossier on Iraqi weapons.
Hutton heard testimony from the doctor who performed Kelly's autopsy, a toxicologist who tested his blood, police who investigated the death and an Oxford University suicide expert, among others.
Hutton agreed with pathologist Dr. Nicholas Hunt's conclusion that Kelly died primarily of heavy bleeding, with a painkiller overdose and mild hardening of the arteries around his heart as secondary causes that hastened the death and made it more likely. Kelly's ulnar artery, the smaller of two blood vessels in the wrist, was completely cut, the pathologist said.
"It's absolutely unbelievable to me ... that a person could die just by cutting that artery," said Dr. Andrew Rouse, whose letters on the subject, co-signed by six other medical experts, have appeared in The Guardian newspaper and on the British Medical Journal's Web site.
"The established wisdom is that it's practically impossible to bleed to death" from a wrist artery, he said.
Rouse, an epidemiologist who works in purchasing for the National Health Service in Birmingham, central England, said the artery would automatically constrict and the blood would clot before someone could lose enough to die. He cited government statistics showing that only a handful of men in Kelly's age group die by self-inflicted slashing injuries each year.
Oxfordshire coroner Nicholas Gardiner plans a hearing next month to consider whether to hold his own inquest into Kelly's death, as Rouse urges, or accept Hutton's conclusions. Gardiner declined to comment.
Police testified that they'd found no signs of a struggle around Kelly's body or any indication that he had died somewhere else and been moved to the woods.
Although wrist-slitting is popularly seen as a common suicide method, experts independent of Rouse's campaign agree it's a difficult method.
Dr. John Scurr, a vascular surgeon at London's Lister Hospital who is not part of Rouse's effort, said that in years of emergency room work, "I saw quite a lot of people who'd had their wrist slashed, we never saw anyone who died. ... I'd be a bit cautious about accepting suicide as a verdict."
Dr. John Henry, a professor of emergency medicine at Imperial College in London, disagreed. Kelly's undiagnosed coronary artery disease may have decreased his ability to tolerate blood loss, Henry said.
The scientist's age - he was 59 - would have made his artery slower to constrict than a young person's, and the coproxamol painkillers, although a less-than-fatal dose, would have weakened his heartbeat and lessened the supply of blood to his brain, Henry said.
There were "at least two causes of death, maybe neither of them on its own may be sufficient but together (they) may be enough," Henry said. "Somebody's bringing in a conspiracy theory which I don't really understand."
Thames Valley Police Assistance Chief Constable Michael Page said officers had investigated the possibility that Kelly was the victim of blackmail or some other crime and concluded he was not.
The doctor who examined his body said there was no sign he had been restrained or assaulted. A toxicologist said tests for sedatives and drugs that might have been used to knock out Kelly were negative.
© 2004 The Associated Press