Page last updated at 15:14 GMT, Monday, 1 February 2010

Inquests into deaths of County Durham patients

Dr Howard Martin
Dr Martin was cleared of murder in 2005

Inquests have begun into the deaths of three patients who a North East doctor was cleared of murdering.

County Durham coroner Andrew Tweddle stressed that Dr Howard Martin was "not on trial in any shape, way or form".

In 2005, the 75-year-old was found not guilty of murdering Frank Moss, 59, Harry Gittins, 74, and Stanley Weldon, 74, with overdoses of morphine.

The inquests at Chester-le-Street Magistrates' Court will examine matters such as the role of statutory agencies.

All three men were patients of Dr Martin when he was a partner of the Jubilee Medical group and worked at surgeries in Newton Aycliffe, Shildon and Eldon.

Reopening the three inquests, Mr Tweddle said: "It's inevitable given the history of this matter that Dr Martin's name will come up many, many times.

'Potentially fatal'

"I should make it absolutely clear that Dr Martin is not on trial in any shape, way or form at all. He just happens to play a part in the story."

Mr Tweddle said the outcome of the inquest could not be "contradictory" of the criminal trial.

Forensic pathologist Mark Egan told the hearing each of the men had significant amounts of morphine in their bodies.

He said retired miner Mr Weldon, who died at a Newton Aycliffe nursing home in 2003, had a "potentially fatal level" of the drug in his system.

However, he said he recorded the cause of a death as "unascertained" because of the body's advanced decomposition and the "guarded way" the toxicologist expressed his findings.

Death 'accelerated'

Mr Moss, who also died in 2003, had lung cancer advanced enough to have killed him at that time, but the morphine had probably accelerated his death, according to Dr Egan.

He said Mr Gittins, who died in 2004 and had cancer of the gullet, "would not have died at the time he did if it were not for the morphine".

After Dr Martin's acquittal at Teesside Crown Court, Mr Tweddle decided not to hold an inquiry into the deaths, saying a thorough investigation had already taken place and he could not force the GP, who now lived in Penmaenmawr, Gwynedd, North Wales, to give evidence.

But in November last year, a High Court judge overruled his decision and ordered an inquest into the death of Mr Moss following a legal challenge by his daughter, Allison.

The hearings continue.

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