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Probe Looking at Patients’ Deaths

May 10, 2001

MANCHESTER, England (AP) _ A public inquiry will investigate the deaths of at least 466 patients of serial-killer physician Harold Shipman, a judge announced Thursday.

Shipman was convicted last year of murdering 15 elderly female patients by injecting them with heroin, and was sentenced to 15 life terms. A coroner testified at the time that those killings might be the tip of the iceberg.

A government-commissioned report in January backed up that suspicion. It found there were 297 more deaths at Shipman’s practice than would normally have been expected during his 24-year career.

High Court Judge Janet Smith, who will head the new inquiry, said she aims to reach decisions on the deaths of at least 466 patients, but she warned that some may prove too ambiguous.

``I anticipate there will be many cases in which I will be able to say there is no cause for suspicion,″ Smith said at a public meeting. ``However it will not be possible in every case for me to say one way or the other.″

It was not clear whether bodies will be exhumed. Smith said death certificates and other official documents will be examined.

The public hearings in the inquiry, expected to take up to two years, will start in Manchester on June 20.

Relatives of the dead applauded the news, expressing hope that the inquiry can lay to rest nagging suspicions of murder and help restore faith in British health care.

``We have all been to hell and back through the actions of Harold Shipman,″ said Jane Ashton-Hibbert, whose 81-year-old grandmother was one of 25 Shipman patients deemed by an earlier series of inquests to have been unlawfully killed.

``We want public confidence to be restored so people go to their GPs (general practitioners) without any problems in the future,″ she said.

Prosecutors have ruled out further trials for 55-year-old Shipman, who maintains he is innocent.

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