2015年4月2日 星期四

Lucia de B (Accused) (製造死亡天使)

Murders are always interesting. Social psychologists tell us that people have a tendency to be more alert to "bad" things than to "good" things and that the former strike them with much greater intensity than the latter. Evolution psychologists tell us why: the risk of not paying attention to things which may threaten our life is much more serious than the risk of not taking advantage of good things which may benefit us. Whilst we may have a second bite of the cherry if we miss the first one, ignoring a threat to our life may prove fatal because death is irreversible: we only got one life! Perhaps for this reason, bad things makes good news story but seldom good things, which we tend to take for granted. Perhaps for the same reason, news of "serial killing" always makes a sensationally "good" news story. One such is the case of Lucia de Berk (more commonly called "Lucia de B"), a licensed pediatric nurse in the Juliana Child Hospital ("JKH") in Hague, Holland, who was sentenced on 24th March 2003 to life imprisonment with an order that she receive psychiatric treatment for 7 murders and 3 attempted murders of babies under her care, not only in JKH but in two other hospitals where she previously worked. She lodged an appeal and on 18th June, 2004 the original verdict was upheld. However, in 2008, her case was reopened by the Dutch Supreme Court because of new evidence proving her innocence and the order that she receive psychiatric treatment was rescinded because the psychiatrist found that there is no evidence of her suffering any psychiatric problem at all and on a re-trial, she was acquitted of all charges against her in April, 2010.

Everything started with the unexpected death of a baby (Amber) in the JKH on 4th September, 2001. The hospital authorities then checked through its records on the number of deaths of babies occurring whilst they were under her care and discovered a total of 9 such deaths between September 2000 and September 2001. Although previously, such deaths were considered unfortunate but not unexpected and the cause of death was labeled "natural", it now considered them suspicious because in all those case, Lucia de B was given the task of giving medicine to the babies under her care when such deaths occurred. To protect its reputation, the hospital decided to inform the police to start an investigation. It was big news and Lucia de B was called "the angel of death" by the press.

What was the evidence upon which Lucia de B was convicted? It was based on a personal profile: there's evidence that she came from a poor and abusive family when she was a child, because of such poverty, had worked as a prostitute, she loved to read books about serial killers, her diary disclosed that she had "given in to her compulsion" (when in fact she was referring to her hobby of playing with tarot cards), the statistics shows that the probability that a nurse's shift would coincide with so many deaths and resuscitations if that happened purely by chance is 1 in 342 million, expert medical evidence show that no "natural" causes could explain such deaths. The court found "strong evidence" that she had poisoned the babies with a drug called "digoxin" in 2 cases and based on such evidence and the argument called "chain-link proof", only weaker evidence is required for all subsequent cases ie. merely that the deaths could not be be explained medically. But there is no eye witness or other circumstantial evidence of the high level of digoxin found in the body of Amber on autopsy was caused by injection by "any" person as no needle marks were found and "generally" due to physiological reasons the level of digoxin found in the blood of a person would be much higher when the person is dead than when he or she is still alive. However under Dutch law, when the evidence is conflicting, "strong evidence" will be treated as "annulling" the "weak evidence". So the strong circumstantial evidence about Lucia's personality profile, combined with the statistical evidence of the improbability of so much many deaths occurring whilst she was on duty was treated as annulling such lack of proof that she "actually" administered the poison and she was convicted accordingly. In particular, under the Dutch law, the court is supposed to be the protector of interest of society as a whole and may take into consideration matters of public policy. It might be that it was partly out of such consideration that Lucia de B was convicted because the trial judge thought that it is in the interest of state to encourage its citizens to trust that its hospitals are properly run and that their reputation must not be unfairly tarnished by psychopathic nurses.

The case of Lucia de B was dramatised and made into a film by Paula van der Oest in 2014. It started with a close up of the impassive face of Lucia de B (Ariane Schluter) in a police van on the way to the trial  when she was charged with the murder  and when she was near the court house, she was surrounded by a horde of photographers eager to take her picture. Then there was a flash back to what she did at the JKH before she was charged. She was shown to be very concerned about the babies in her care and would often give peremptory orders to the junior nurses to check on various precautionary steps and would stay overtime with the babies. Then when she is off work, she would rush to see her  bedridden grandfather with tubes around his nose. Then we are shown how Judith Jansen (Sallie Harmsen), a fresh law graduate with first honor, eager to prove herself was given the case to handle. We follow her around when she conscientiously checked through all the hospital records and documents in the case file and then how when she did so, the Public Prosecutor Ernestine Johansson (Annet Malherbe), which under Dutch law is responsible to dig out all evidence for and against the prosecution of a crime relating to a suspect. Only when the original inquisitorial magistrate find the relevant facts presented by the Public Prosecutor will support a charge will the suspect be formally charged in the trial court, when her status would be transformed from that of a "suspect" to that of an "Accused".

When Judith first presented her evidence to Ernestine, the latter said that there is no case against Lucia because there is no "direct evidence" that she had committed the crime but Judith cited the "chain-link proof" argument used in American courts and persuaded her to go ahead. The twist however, is that after Lucia's conviction, Judith found out from another nurse who also had a hand in looking after Amber that the doctor in charge of the Amber case, who wrote in the bedside medical records that the condition of Amber was "stable"  was most reluctant to be dragged back from a concert upon an urgent call by Lucia and that she had for a long time been suffering from a depression which interfered with her work and that according to her own observation all the symptoms pointed to the condition of the baby being far from "stable" because of diarrhea, and trembling etc.It was an obvious mis-diagnosis. Lucia's colleague also told Judith that according to her, Lucia was a most caring and concerned nurse. In addition, Judith found out that for the second death, Lucia was not even on duty at the time: it was the doctor suffering from depression and her assistant who were but the hospital authorities deliberately failed to produce the duty roster to the investigating detective because that would have meant that one of their doctors was incompetent and that would reflect badly on the reputation of their hospital, especially when the chief of the hospital, who is neither a statistician nor a doctor but merely a pharmacist concerned about losing his post in an impending merger.

In addition to the two pieces of exculpatory evidence,  Judith also found out that Ernestine had without letting her know, ordered another analysis of the blood sample found on Amber's body from a laboratory in Strasbourg which shows that Amber could not have died from Digosin but had chosen deliberately not to present such evidence to the Dutch court, something which she as the Public Prosecutor is obliged by law so to do, probably because she did not want her reputation and therefore her career to be jeopardized if on appeal the judgment of the court were reversed in such a high profile case.

became convinced that a miscarriage of justice had occurred and tried her best to convince Ernestine to admit to their mistake but when she insisted that Ernestine do so, she was instantly fired. At great risk to her own career, she stole the Strasbourg report from Ernestine's office and passed it to the defence attorney. But as on appeal, the Court of Appeal could only deal with errors of law but not errors of "factual evidence" , the re-analysis report by the Strasbourg laboratory was considered irrelevant and excluded. Then Lucia's lawyer decided to disclose to the press the new evidence proving her innocence.  The fact that a caring nurse was falsely accused of being a serial killer caused an uproar. Thousands of people signed a petition for the case to be re-opened. The case was re-opened in 2008. Since the "chain-link" proof is based on evidence of two murders thought to be supported by "strong evidence" now proven upon further evidence not to be such at all, the case for all the other murders collapsed and Lucia was cleared of all charges.

It was a taut film. The layout of the plot was very well timed and we had the impression of following a thriller as new evidence proving Lucia's innocence emerged bit by bit as we dog the steps of Judith's meticulous investigation. The acting by Ariane Schluter as the calm and self-contained but caring Lucia and Sallie Harmsen as the fresh law graduate not yet corrupted by worldly wisdom was superb. I like in particular the scene in which Sallie Harmsen was trying to hide that report behind her back from her colleague when she was discovered to be in the room where she had no further permission to enter: she portrays extremely well by her eyes and her body posture that forced external show of friendliness and inner fear. In short, a film well worth seeing for its suspense. As the film is substantially based on a real case, except for the character of Judith Jansen, it does make us think how easy it is to cause great injustice because of our need to see the world and to divide it into a black and white world of angels and devils and how easily we may treat mere suspicion as "proof" and how press may influence public opinion and even our judicial system.