Today saw the publication of a paper entitled “In Search of the ‘Angels of Death’: Conceptualising the Contemporary Nurse Healthcare Serial Killer” by Elisabeth Yardley and David Wilson (Birmingham City University, Centre for Applied Criminology). It appears (2014) in Wiley’s “Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling” (J. Investig. Psych. Offender Profil.) http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jip.1434/abstract
I have many concerns about this paper but my first is the following: it is based on 16 past cases, at least 2 of which seem almost certain to have been rather serious miscarriages of justice. In fact an earlier version of the methodology proposed by the authors was used against Lucia de Berk – the prosecution brought in an FBI expert who has contributed to one of the first publications on HCSK’s (Health Care Serial Killers) … and in which he made use of his inside knowledge of the Lucia case.
So looking at this sample, N = 16 with at least 2 false positives (Colin Norris, Ben Geen), what can be concluded? (Probably at least 3 false positives: the Finnish case of Aino Nykopp-Koski is highly controversial). The checklist of “red flags” certainly identifies those who are going to be successfully prosecuted as an HCSK. In fact the reason they are being prosecuted is precisely because of some of the red flags. Others are subjective evaluations by fellow nurses and doctors and are contributed to the prosecution case *after* it has started. The most pernicious point is that an investigation into a suspected HCSK starts internally in a hospital and is carried out by doctors who themselves, formally, should be seen as suspects (their own patients are involved…). How objective will they be? What we know from the cases of Lucia, Colin Norris and Ben Geen, is that in this situation, doctors trawl for recent “suspicious” cases, re-writing or at least re-explaining medical events, which till then had not been considered suspicious at all. This results in a compelling dossier which goes to the police … media, police and courts do the rest.
The appearance of this landmark paper was reported in the Guardian newspaper. Ben Geen got some free publicity, the newspaper even included his photograph, taken during trial or appeal. Don’t expect a photograph of a young man in the middle of an appalling nightmare to present a “picture of innocence”. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/22/study-identified-key-traits-serial-killer-nurses
Here’s the checklist. Lucia had an enormous high score according to the evidence presented to the court. But not if the evidence is “corrected” with a view to correspondence to truth.
1. Moves from one hospital to another
2. Secretive/difficult personal relationships
3. History of mental instability/depression
4. Predicts when someone will die
5. Makes odd comments/claims to be ‘jinxed’
6. Likes to talk about death/odd behaviours when someone dies
7. Higher incidences of death on his/her shift
8. Seems inordinately enthused about his/her skills
9. Makes inconsistent statements when challenged about deaths
10. Prefers nightshifts—fewer colleagues about
11. Associated with incidents at other hospitals
12. Been involved with other criminal activities
13. Makes colleagues anxious/suspicious
14. Craves attention
15. Tries to prevent others checking on his/her patients
16. Hangs around during investigations of deaths
17. In possession of drugs at home/in locker
18. Lied about personal information
19. In possession of books about poison/serial murder
20. Has had disciplinary problems
21. Appears to have a personality disorder
22. Has a substance abuse problem
I emailed Prof. David Wilson in order to start an academic discussion with him about his research methodology. He said that I couldn’t criticise the paper because it has been published in a peer reviewed journal. And now he has blocked my emails. I have had the same experience when attempting to start a conversation with earlier researchers in this field. It seems that criminology is a field of science with impeccable research methodology and therefore above any criticism from other scientists.