A judge yesterday quashed the murder convictions of three men after he deemed that evidence given by a pathologist was "discredited" and may have misled the jury. The decision came on the day the pathologist, Michael Heath, faced a Home Office disciplinary tribunal into his professional conduct following complaints from his peers.
Malcolm Byrne and Victor Boreman, aged 34 and 38, from Scotland, and Michael Byrne, 41, were convicted of the murder of a man in his first floor flat in Plumstead, south-east London, in April 1996, after an argument.
In his judgment yesterday, Lord Justice Hooper quoted extensively from analysis provided by other pathologists who questioned several of the conclusions central to Dr Heath's evidence. The judge said Dr Heath's claims that the victim may have "drowned in his blood" because of injuries to his head and lips, and that he had been unconscious after the assault in his flat, had been discredited by his peers.
"The jury's verdict is necessarily seriously undermined ... the appeals against the verdict must succeed." After quashing their murder convictions, the judge gave each appellant an eight-year jail term for outstanding charges of wounding with intent and and unlawful wounding.
If the Home Office tribunal into Dr Heath's professional conduct - which opened yesterday - finds he has acted inappropriately, a number of high-profile murder cases could be revisited, legal experts have said. Since his appointment to the Home Office register of forensic pathologists in 1991 Dr Heath has provided postmortem evidence in a series of cases including that of Stuart Lubbock, who was found dead in entertainer Michael Barrymore's swimming pool, Lin and Megan Russell, murdered in Kent by Michael Stone, and Myra Hindley.
The three convictions quashed yesterday had rested on the question of whether the victim, Jonathan Reid, 51, died because of injuries sustained during an assault the three admitted, or because of fumes from a fire in his flat several hours after the attack. The cause of the fire could not be determined.
In April 1998 the convictions of Boreman and Malcolm and Michael Byrne - who are not related - were quashed, but in a retrial four months later they were convicted of Mr Reid's murder a second time and sentenced to life imprisonment.
After emerging from Pentonville prison, Boreman complained about the role Dr Heath had played in his conviction. "It disgusts me that that man has been allowed to practise for so many years," he said. "Dr Heath completely and utterly messed up the evidence in our case. I feel he is responsible for putting me in prison for 10 years, like he and the prosecution have stolen my whole life."
Hours earlier, at Dr Heath's disciplinary tribunal at the Old Bailey, Charles Miskin QC, for the Home Office, said: "It is the belief of the Home Office that Dr Heath has fallen short of the high standards required by the secretary of state of forensic pathologists." The tribunal would hear of two cases in which there was "severe disagreement" between Dr Heath and other "eminent pathologists," he said. In both cases, Dr Heath refused to back down on his view that two women had been murdered despite evidence to the contrary, it was alleged.
In the first, Kenneth Fraser was acquitted by an Old Bailey jury in 2002 of killing his partner, Mary Anne Moore, 56, at their south-east London home the previous year. Three senior pathologists had agreed that her injuries were textbook signs that she had been pushed down the stairs, but Dr Heath had disagreed, saying she had been battered to death.
In the second case, Steven Puaca, of Lowestoft, Suffolk, was found guilty at Norwich crown court in 2002 of smothering his 55-year-old partner, Jacqueline Tindsley, in March that year.
His conviction was quashed last November by the court of appeal in a case also heard by Lord Justice Hooper, after a damning analysis of evidence given by Dr Heath. "In neither case was there any substantial evidence of unlawful killing save the evidence of Dr Heath," Mr Miskin said. "It was his forensic pathological and scene reconstruction evidence which in both occasions, on any reasonable view, must have persuaded the Crown Prosecution Service to charge Fraser and Puaca. As further material came in which suggested that that opinion was in fact unwarranted, he refused to back down."
Following yesterday's judgment at the court of appeal, the lawyer for the three men whose convictions were quashed, Maslem Merchant, said the judgment could open the door to appeals in other cases in which Dr Heath given evidence. "Not every single case in which Heath has done a postmortem examination is going to be quashed. But if there are cases where, like this one, someone has been convicted almost exclusively because of Heath's evidence, those cases need to be looked at."