‘Serial Killer’ Lucia de Berk Acquitted

The following is a quick translation of De Volkskrant’s report today on the acquittal of Dutch nurse Lucia De Berk, originally jailed for killing seven hospital patients in The Hague. This is not an official translation, and all inaccuracies are my responsibility alone. The original report can be found here. An in-depth interview with De Berk will run in tomorrow’s edition. I have no professional connection with De Volkskrant, this is done entirely off my own bat.

The appeal court has overturned the conviction of Lucia de Berk for the murder of seven hospital patients and three charges of attempted murder.

De Berk gave a deep sigh of relief when it became clear she was free. After the ruling she fell into her daughter’s arms, to loud applause from sympathizers in the courtroom. Stuttering with emotion, she told the assembled crowd of reporters and photographers she was ‘very pleased’. ‘I need to let it sink in.’

De Berk, 48, from The Hague, received a life sentence for the offences. Until today she had been the worst serial killer in Dutch legal history. The murders and attempted murders were alleged to have taken place between 1997 and 2001. Her case was reopened by the supreme court in 2008 after new facts arose which cast doubt over the evidence.

The Openbare Ministerie (Dutch public prosecutor’s office) asked last month for the depiction of De Berk as a serial killer to be overturned. That has been realised with this judgment. Her acquittal also establishes one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in Dutch legal history. The proceedings surrounding the alleged murders of hospital patients date back to September 2001.

The Openbare Ministerie asked for an acquittal in March this year following a closer examination of the patients’ cases. Experts undertook a fresh examination of the apparently suspicious medical files. They found that the incidents could be explained in retrospect on sound medical grounds. There were no indications that De Berk had committed any criminal act.

The court found it could not be shown that any crime had been committed. The death of baby A, who was said to have been poisoned, could be explained on solid medical grounds. ‘It can be described as a natural death,’ the court stated.

An investigation into other ‘suspicious’ incidents revealed that there was no reason to consider an unnatural or criminal cause. The court queried how far it was possible ‘to speak of unexpected and unexplained deaths’ in the cases of seriously ill or very elderly patients and agreed with the words of a surgeon who said that ‘it is not unusual in patients of this age that the heart simply stops beating because of their advanced age.’

The faculty of state prosecutors stated in a response that the acquittal meant ‘Lucia de Berk has spent nearly six and a half years in prison as an innocent person.’ The attorney-general, Harm Brower, recently apologized to her in a personal meeting.

‘The Openbare Ministerie realizes that the resultant suffering can never entirely be undone,’ Brouwer said in a press statement. ‘It is important nevertheless that Lucia de Berk is financially compensated as early as possible.’

Metta de Noo, a member of the committee that spent years campaigning to clear the nurse’s name, reacted with relief. After the court’s verdict she was embraced by De Berk. ‘It’s fantastic,’ said De Noo. ‘The court has been magnanimous and open. It is now clear that there is no question of murder. It was mass psychosis. Doctors, the police and members of the Openbare Ministerie unthinkingly followed the same line. It was mass psychosis.’

De Noo called for a public inquiry to be set up to identify how the miscarriage of justice was allowed to happen. ‘I believe everyone involved in this case should apologise.’

De Berk has always maintained her innocence. In April 2008 she was freed pending her appeal hearing. She spent more than six years in prison, where she suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2006 which left her partly incapacitated.

Original text copyright De Volkskrant, Amsterdam. An extended interview with Lucia De Berk will run in the newspaper on Thursday, April 15.

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