Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Doctors Harry Brunjes and Andrew Johns review two startlingly similar serial murderers – one of whom took his own life after a number of years behind bars, the other who walked free and eventually resumed his medical career.
Two startlingly similar serial killers, both fixated by their mothers, with a vast over-estimation of their own medical abilities and obsessed by the power of opiates. Yet while one was sentenced to life, the other escaped with his, a controversial acquittal saving him from the gallows.
Doctor Harry Brunjes is a well-known physician, enjoying a career that’s included hospital posts at Guys and the Royal Sussex and a period in general practice. Doctor Andrew Johns is an eminent forensic psychiatrist who has appeared as an expert witness at a number of high profile criminal trials, including that of Dr Shipman. Together, they presented a chilling tale of medical skulduggery, fraud and deception carried out by two of the medical fraternities most notorious operatives and exposed the incestuous nature of medical regulation that created the environment in which such activities could remain undetected for years.
John Bodkin Adams was an Irish general practitioner, convicted fraudster and suspected serial killer. Between 1946 and 1956, more than 160 of his patients, principally spinsters or elderly widows, died in suspicious circumstances, often involving opiates and were buried almost invariably without the formalities of a post-mortem. Of these, over 130 left Adams money or items in their wills. The chronology of Shipman’s case is alarmingly similar, save that (with one exception) he derived no financial benefit from the passing of his patients.
So, why did one get off and one end up taking his life behind bars? Brunjes’ theory is Adams QC, Geoffrey Lawrence, pulled off two masterstrokes by exercising the right of his client to remain silent (thus denying the prosecution the opportunity of a cross examination) and in his destruction of prosecution witnesses’ evidence by the simple expedient of digging up hospital records long thought lost that contradicted their oral testimony.
It’s a chilling tale that is for the most part well told, even though both speakers took time to get into their stride. Inter-weaving the two stories is effective in bringing out the similarities of the cases and no doubt this will become smoother as the Fringe run develops. What would make the show an even bigger draw is devoting more time to the examination of motive (on which Johns gave us a few fascinating, tantalising inputs) with perhaps less time spent on the story, much of which was drawn from readily available public sources.
Could this happen today? With the dramatic improvement in regulatory supervision that has taken effect since Shipman’s conviction it is highly unlikely that such a serial killer would escape detection for long. But you can never say never. After all, Shipman remains the only member of the medical practice ever convicted of murdering a patient. And basic probability theory tells you that there must have been other cases that remain hidden. It’s a sobering thought that the medical world is the only profession in which mistakes can, literally, be buried. Worth a look for anyone who doesn’t know their GP that well.