Pathologist accused over evidence

A home office pathologist was yesterday accused of disregarding important evidence in a case that led to a Lowestoft man being jailed for murder.

A home office pathologist was yesterday accused of disregarding important evidence in a case that led to a Lowestoft man being jailed for murder.

Steven Puaca, was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 2002 for the murder of his partner Jacqueline Tindsley after evidence given by pathologist Michael Heath concluded she had died of asphyxia.

Dr Heath told Norwich Crown Court at the time that in his opinion Miss Tindsley, 55, had suffocated after being forced face down into a pillow, at the couple's home in the Hemplands, Lowestoft.

But doubts over the reliability of the pathology evidence saw Puaca's conviction quashed by the Court of Appeal in November 2005, after seven pathologists raised doubts about Dr Heath's conclusions.

Yesterday, the Home Office Advisory Board for Forensic Pathology sitting in central London heard that Dr Heath had disregarded a toxicology report showing dangerously high levels of anti-depressant drugs in Miss Tindsley's system.

Charles Miskin, for the Home Office, told the panel: "These drug levels were reaching levels of fatality. Did it not occur to you to discuss this very important issue with the other doctor who made the toxicology report?

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"Did you not want to find out more about the combinations of these drugs together?"

Dr Heath - who stands by his original findings - replied he had asked for more toxicology work to be done but added he had seen other cases with high levels of drugs in a body, but where the cause of death was entirely different.

He said that when he looked at the toxicology report, and from his post-mortem observations, he could not see how the drugs could have caused all the injuries he found in Miss Tindsley's body.

Dr Heath told the hearing it was still his opinion that Miss Tindsley had been suffocated and there had been severe damage to Miss Tindsley's shoulder and back muscles which suggested a struggle.

He said: "It is my opinion that the way these drugs can cause death would not have accounted for all my post- mortem observations. I believe her face was pushed down into her bedding. This could have been done by someone laying on top of her.

"I can't understand, with the damage I noted on the back and shoulders, how anyone of their own volition could put themselves in the position she was found in. The damage was so severe you couldn't put your arms into that position. It was a very incapacitating injury."

But Mr Miskin replied: "The tearing of the muscles was due to a seizure which could have been due to a drug overdose - that must strike you as an important conclusion to ask yourself? You must accept there was overdose levels of drugs in her body?"

Dr Heath replied he did acknowledge this but still believed his findings were accurate.

But he agreed with Mr Miskin that there were no marks on Miss Tindsley's mouth or nose which would have also suggested she had been smothered.

The panel is looking at whether Dr Heath fell short of the standards required by the secretary of state for forensic pathologists. The hearing is expected to conclude at the end of the month.