The painful death of a doctor by his wife

Saturday August 25 2018


By Dr Sylvester Onzivua

On October 31, 2011, a consultant surgeon in one of the regional hospitals attended to one of his junior colleagues who had sustained burns affecting his entire face.

The surgeon noted that the substance that was on the face of his colleague and the surrounding areas was oily.

The cavity of the mouth was also affected by the oily substance, implying that the doctor had either inhaled or ingested the material.
The left eye of the doctor was completely destroyed and the right eye, partially destroyed.

The young doctor also complained of difficulty in swallowing. The consultant surgeon therefore referred his junior colleague to the burns and plastic surgery unit of the national referral hospital.

Doctor dies
Two and half months after the doctor sustained these extensive injuries, he died. A woman the doctor was co-habiting with was subsequently charged with murder. She was accused of pouring hot cooking oil onto the face of the doctor.

The law
In law there is limitation as to the time of death. A person is not deemed to have caused the death of another person if the death does not occur within a year and a day of the cause of death, inclusive of the day on which the last unlawful act contributing to the cause of death was done.
And a person is deemed to have caused the death of another person although his or her action or omission is not the immediate or sole cause of death.
• If he or she inflicts an injury on another person as a result of which that person undergoes a surgical procedure or medical treatment which results in that person’s death.
• If that person inflicts an injury on another person which would not have caused death if the person had submitted to proper surgical or medical treatment or had observed proper precautions.

Court was persuaded beyond reasonable doubt that the woman deliberately poured hot cooking oil on the face and mouth of the doctor as he lay on the bed and that immediately after the evil act had fled the scene.
A vital question court had to determine was whether the death of the doctor was linked to or was a direct consequence of the burns he sustained.

The doctor was admitted to the national referral hospital for about seven weeks and was discharged on December 21 2011.
He was thereafter taken to the home of a relative from where he died.

A post-mortem examination was carried out on the body on January 16 2012. The most significant finding was that both lungs contained a lot of fluid, but why this was so in this case was not established.
The pathologist told court that many conditions, including burns, can lead to accumulation of fluid in the lungs.

The pathologist also told court that he had submitted samples from the body to the laboratory to find out if there was any poison in the body to explain the doctor’s death.

Missing report
The report from the lab was not produced at the trial and the pathologist confessed that he had never seen the report. To court it was therefore not certain that the condition in the lungs could be solely attributed to the burns to the exclusion of other possible causes, and indeed if the death was as a result of the condition of the lungs or the burns per se.
Further, by submitting samples from the body to test for poisons and drugs, the pathologist also raised the possibility of drug poisoning as a cause of death.

Court observed that the burden of proof was on the prosecution to show that the death of the doctor was occasioned by or was a direct consequence of the actions of the accused.
The pathologist’s evidence raised other possibilities as the cause of the condition of the doctor’s lungs. The pathologist failed to tell court conclusively that the condition of the lungs was a direct consequence of the burns sustained by the doctor.

In this particular case, the air of uncertainty arising from the post-mortem report regarding the cause of death of the doctor could not be ignored by court without proper and cogent basis for doing so.

The possibility that the doctor’s death was caused by some intervening factor, not connected to the burns, was clearly not ruled out.

Considering that the doctor died two and half months after the attack, court was of the view that the prosecution should have adduced evidence excluding other intervening factors as the possible or probable causes of the death.