Was There A Murder? Who Knows?

June 28, 2019

You would think it goes without saying that police officers would take a serious approach to the investigation of a sudden unexplained death.  In a recent Coronial Inquest into the death of a man on the premises of a medical practice as a result of a heroin overdose, it was noted that the police didn’t even think that there might have been a murder committed.  The investigation into the death was described as ‘slapdash and incompetent’ and the Court was left with little confidence in the quality of police investigations into sudden deaths.

The inquest related to the death of a 43 year old man at a GP’s medical practice in Hindley Street.  The man, in company with two others, had taken heroin on the premises and his death was the result of a lethal dose of the drug.  The deceased man had been a patient at the medical practice and the others involved were the doctor’s daughter (who also worked in the medical practice) and another patient.  The Court concluded that the daughter had met the two men through her work as a receptionist at the practice.

The case demonstrates the types of evidence that are available to assist the Court to investigate the circumstances of a sudden death.  CCTV video footage from outside a nearby hotel showed the three associating at that location earlier in the evening.  They could then be observed leaving to walk together to the medical practice which was only a two minute walk away.

What We Know Happened

The doctor’s daughter gave evidence that they went into a treatment room at the medical practice where heroin syringes were prepared and she was the first to be injected.  The deceased was then injected and the other male might then have attempted to inject himself.  Around this time the doctor entered the treatment room and a triple zero call was made.

The other male didn’t give evidence because he died as a result of unrelated circumstances before the hearing.  He had given three differing statements to police of what happened on the night and the Court concluded that the evidence supported the daughter’s claim that it was he who had obtained and supplied the heroin earlier in the evening.

The doctor came into the room after the heroin had been administered and so he could not provide any assistance as to what happened when that occurred.  Through her barrister, the daughter conceded that on the evening she had made an inexcusable error of judgment both professionally and personally.  She was the ‘conduit ‘for access to the clinic and provided access to paraphernalia that could be used to administer the heroin.  The Court found her to be a credible witness and accepted her version of what happened in the room when the heroin was administered.  Neither she nor the deceased had contemplated using heroin that night but they made a spontaneous decision to do so when it was suggested by the other male, which was no doubt influenced by the fact that they had been drinking.

The Court accepted that the evidence supported the proposition that the deceased man had voluntarily consumed the heroin.  The other man had administered the heroin to the woman, and her last recollection before passing out was that he was turning towards the deceased apparently to inject him.  At that point there were still two syringes that had been prepared.

The Police Investigation

In one of the three different accounts that the other man gave to police of what occurred that night, he claimed that he tried to inject himself in a toilet outside the premises.  Only one piece of drug paraphernalia was seized by police at the surgery, being a syringe that was found on the outside toilet floor.  That syringe was never analysed by police so there was no way to determine if it was a syringe used by that man.

None of the witnesses, including the police and the doctor, saw any drug paraphernalia in the room.  It was accepted that the man likely ‘swept’ the room before the doctor entered.  He was later found by police to be in possession of the deceased man’s mobile phone which suggested that he had time to search the man’s body.  In fact the position of his body when the doctor entered the room did not appear to be consistent with a sudden collapse but instead it appeared as though he had been ‘laid out’ on the floor.

The doctor entered the room when the other man called out ‘heroin, heroin’.  When he entered the other man was leaving the room and the doctor chose to treat his daughter as the male appeared to be dead.  The other man came back into the room and the doctor enlisted him to perform CPR on the deceased.  After less than a minute the man left the room again and so the doctor started CPR on the male who had overdosed.  The other man returned again to the room and was directed by the doctor to perform CPR which he apparently did until paramedics arrived.

The Court concluded that the other man had disposed of all the drug paraphernalia.

The Court commented that the police investigation into the matter ‘left a lot to be desired’.  No proper search was conducted of the surgery.  Given the unusual circumstances of the case, involving a heroin overdose in a doctor’s surgery, it would have been expected that a very thorough search would have been conducted by police to find any evidence of drug paraphernalia, but that just did not happen.  There were a number of rubbish bins in the street outside and no effort was made to search them.  The Court observed, “There was no coordination amongst the various officers who attended that night and although statements were taken, physical evidence was not diligently pursued.”  The only item found wasn’t analysed by police.

Potential Suspect Allowed to Wander Around the Crime Scene

It appeared that the police only discovered that the other man had the deceased’s phone by accident. Two hours after the triple zero call, the woman complained that her phone was missing and so one police officer returned to the scene to try to find it.  That officer thought it might be useful to call the deceased’s phone, and it was only then that it was realised that it was in the other man’s possession.  As the Court stated, “It beggars belief that [the other man] was allowed to maintain possession of the telephone for almost two hours after the arrival of police at the scene.”  There were probable grounds to arrest and search the man and the fact that he was permitted to ‘wander around the scene’ for some two hours after the police arrived was something for which no explanation was given.

It seemed that the police just assumed that a drug overdose had occurred and no more serious criminality was involved than the provision of a controlled drug.  No thought was given to whether a murder might have been committed.  The Court said, “It goes without saying that unless police carry out [their] task diligently and thoroughly, the quality of the coronial investigation is inevitably compromised,” and, “The fact that in 2016 it is possible for a coronial investigation to be conducted in such a slapdash and incompetent manner leaves me with little confidence in the overall quality of coronial investigations by police.”

In the end, all that the Court could determine was that the man died as a result of a heroin overdose but more information about the cause and circumstances of that overdose could have been available if a proper investigation had been carried out.

When a sudden and unexpected death occurs very often the family of the deceased have questions.  What happened?  Why did it happen?  Could it have been avoided?  While it isn’t necessary for families to be legally represented at a Coronial Inquest, where action might be taken against a person or organisation responsible for the death this should be considered.  Questions can be put to that party during the course of the hearing to assist in determining whether there is a cause of action and to narrow the issues that might otherwise be in dispute in subsequent civil proceedings.

Websters Lawyers have solicitors experienced in assisting with Coronial Inquests in Adelaide and they can advise about the costs involved and whether legal funding is available.  A free consultation can be arranged through our contact page.

Re L.A. Pike