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Gross injustice

Unjustly imprisoned for the manslaughter of a patient, surgeon David Sellu’s book tells of his nightmare. But, asks Matt Foot, how did it happen in the first place?

15 July, 2019 — By Matt Foot

From left: Catherine and David Sellu, Dr Jenny Vaughan and Matt Foot

BACK in December 2014, a consultant neurologist called Dr Jenny Vaughan came to see me on a Sunday about a case she considered to be a miscarriage of justice.

She was chair of the Friends of David Sellu, a surgeon convicted for gross negligence manslaughter of a patient, John Hughes, who had died in 2010.

What really impressed me was that she had originally thought David was guilty and had looked into the case out of a niggling concern.
Her concern had grown to horror.

Almost two years later – on October 27, 2016 – we were sat together for a two-day hearing at the Court of Appeal, with David and his wife Catherine.

The evidence before court showed a complex case concerning co-morbidities that at trial had been simplified or ignored.

Sellu’s case confronts the common misapprehension that a surgeon’s job is simply to rush to operate.

One of the prosecution experts gave evidence at trial that David should have operated on the first evening after his initial consultation. What was discovered after trial was that, had David followed that advice, he would likely have been negligent, as it is possible Mr Hughes would have died on the operating table.

David had spent two-and-a-half years in prison. His story is particularly painful because he had risen from a poor upbringing in Sierra Leone to become a well-respected surgeon with a 40-year career.

His book, Did He Save Lives?, is a must for anyone who cares about what it feels like to be wrongly imprisoned. People often think that, on the rare occasions that a successful appellant walks out of the Court of Appeal, their lives are full of relief and happiness forever more.

This book belies that myth. Every such appellant is permanently damaged, they live in a very lonely place.

David’s book does a great service to shine a light on why that is. The separation from family and the daily physical brutality take a life-lasting toll. This is felt so severely because they serve time while innocent.

The book tells how he painstakingly fought his way through his time in custody. He shows a prison system characterised by discomfort, fear, humiliation, and solitude. Cut adrift by his lawyers, with false notions of early release to an open prison, David instead has to suffer incarceration at the infamous high security HMP Belmarsh. There follows the gruelling process of prison life and working through different establishments.

The impact on his family is huge. His son James reacts by giving up medicine, despite having obtained a merit in his masters degree.

The warmth and support of David’s family – his wife Catherine is an A&E nurse and their four dignified children – is in sharp contrast to the cold treatment of prison, including some medical staff.

Many are referred to, if not named, in the various processes that were culpable in David’s incarceration – the private hospital, the independent investigation, experts, police, CPS, the coroner and the courts.

It is difficult to believe that a white doctor would have been treated in the same manner.

Certainly we now know that black people are more likely to be the subject of investigation and conviction.

This book tells the story of how David Sellu got back to where he rightly belongs – among his family, his peers and society, although questions remain unresolved as to how this was allowed to happen.

It shows the dangers of pursuing medical practitioners under a criminal law of gross negligence.

Did He Save Lives? A Surgeon’s Story. By David Sellu, Sweetcroft Publishing, £9.99.
Matt Foot was David Sellu’s appeal solicitor.


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