Supreme Court reopens hospital baby murder case
In 2006, Dutch nurse Lucia de Berk was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of three others at a children's hospital in The Hague.
In 2006, Dutch nurse Lucia de Berk was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of seven babies and the attempted murder of three others at a children's hospital in The Hague. Now the Supreme Court in Arnhem is to re-examine the case. The court concludes that new evidence puts the conviction in doubt.
A new investigation has shown that one of the babies Lucia de Berk was convicted of murdering could have died of natural causes. At the time the court concluded that the nurse had poisoned the babies with a drug used to treat heart conditions, digoxin, also known as digitalis, an extract from the foxglove plant. The babies were said to have had an increased concentration of digoxin in their blood.
Prompted by an unexpected death, in 2001 the Juliana children's hospital in The Hague pieced together a number of deaths and resuscitations of babies which had taken place when Lucia de Berk was on duty. They concluded that the cases were suspicious and decided to bring charges against her. Controversially, the conviction partly rested on the fact that it was seen as statistically unlikely that so many deaths should have coincided with her shifts. An appeal was rejected largely on the basis of the evidence of a detainee at the psychiatric observation clinic where Lucia de Berk was being held. The man claimed she had confessed the killings to him, but later said he had invented the story. Photo above right: Lucia-de-Berk conviction in doubt Photo Wikipedia Commons
In 2004 a court in The Hague sentenced her to life imprisonment and indefinite psychiatric detention. The Supreme Court then ruled that this combination was not possible and instructed a court in Amsterdam to make a choice. The court opted for life imprisonment.
Lucia de Berk's conviction met with a major public outcry. She received the support of determined champions, who asserted she had been the victim of a serious miscarriage of justice. Sympathisers held demonstrations outside her prison. Dozens of prominent figures put their name to an advertisement calling for her case to be reopened.
In 2006 philosopher of law Ton Derksen submitted an official request for a review by the commission that reconsiders cases which are in doubt. A year later these experts recommended that the Supreme Court should reopen the case.
The Supreme Court commissioned toxicologist Jan Meulenbelt to conduct a new investigation into the death of one of the babies. He now says that digoxin was probably not the cause of death. The baby most likely died of exhaustion. The Supreme Court has now ruled that Professor Meulenbelt's conclusion legally counts as fresh evidence, which enables the case against Lucia de Berk to be reopened. Philosopher of Law Ton Derksen explains why this one piece of evidence is so significant.
"Evidently there has been a miscarriage of justice on this point. Lucia de Berk evidently did not commit murder and because this so-called murder was a sort of locomotive that was supposed to pull all the carriages, the other cases for which there was actually no good argumentation, the Supreme Court has said, 'When this locomotive disappears, so do all the carriages'. Hence a review on all points."
The Supreme Court decision may be good news for other people whose convictions are controversial.
"It seems that not only has Lucia de Berk's case been reviewed, but also the definition of the term fresh evidence' has been widened. Up to now the definition has been highly restrictive, and if this interpretation continues to be used in future, it's good news for a lot of other people."
It is not yet known when the court in Arnhem will handle the case. Ton Vissers, Lucia de Berk's lawyer, says it may be very soon. Lucia de Berk was provisionally released in June this year pending the Supreme Court verdict. She is presently at home recovering from a stroke she suffered in 2006. Her lawyer said she was elated at the news. Her daughter Fabiënne described the decision as "the best we could have".
Sebastiaan Gottlieb and Michael Blass