Surgeon’s manslaughter ordeal

David Sellu was a surgeon with a distinguished record extending over 40 years. In 2010, a patient died under his care in a private hospital. 

There followed a sequence of extraordinary events that led to him being prosecuted and convicted for the patient’s death and sent to prison. 

His licence to practise was suspended, his career cut short. 

Events that took place later showed that this was an unfair trial with tinges of racism. He won an appeal against his conviction and is now a free man. But the damage had already been done.

He tells his story….

The Old Bailey, November 2013

‘Would the defendant stand up . . .’

It took a few seconds to accept who the defendant was. I rose slowly to my feet.

The trial had lasted nearly six weeks. Each morning, as my family and I walked from the tube station to the court, we were mobbed by photographers walking backwards ahead of us with their cameras pointed in our direction. 

There was an even bigger crowd of paparazzi standing outside the only public entrance into the court and the whirring noise of their cameras was unmistakable. We had been advised to comport ourselves normally, with dignity, and not attempt to hide our faces.

‘They will get their pictures anyway, and if not outside the court, it will be on the doorsteps outside your home,’ my medico-legal adviser told me.

If I thought events outside were intimidating, I found the interior of the Old Bailey even more daunting, with its wooden panels covering the walls, high ceilings with their ornate linings, the massive corridors, the cavernous courtroom. 

Despite my beta-blocker drug, prescribed to control my high blood pressure, each heartbeat resounded through my chest like a gong.

In a cage

Sitting low down, across from the judge, I was forced to look up at him on his raised platform. I knew he was in his early sixties from his Wikipedia entry, but he looked older in his wig and glasses. He took all his notes on his laptop and at the beginning of their interrogation, each witness was instructed to speak slowly. 

The jury were seated on two levels to my left, and between them and the judge was the witness box where I had given evidence for nearly three days. In the well between us sat the prosecuting and defence lawyers and to my right was the public gallery on two floors. 

I sat in a cage flanked by two prison officers, one of whom was armed with a pair of handcuffs.

A nurse was on stand-by. The archaic court rituals were well rehearsed. Two loud taps had announced the judge’s entrance into the courtroom, which he made through a huge door. He was dressed in garb that would not have looked out of place two centuries ago; we had all stood up and watched him bow to the lawyers, and they in turn bowed back; then we waited for him to sit down, before we did.

I cast a quick glance at my wife and family before facing the judge. I felt frightened and humiliated in equal measure, but tried to show no outward signs of my distress. 

Unprecidented publicity

There were now more people in the courtroom than at any time during the six weeks of the trial. I was aware of the intense medical, legal, press and public interest in my case. It had received unprecedented publicity in the press. A surgeon on trial for manslaughter.

‘David Sellu, for the offence of unlawfully killing Mr James Hughes, I sentence you to two-and-a-half-years in prison…’

I could hear low rumblings from all sides of the court and louder voices from the public gallery. The prison warder, who had been standing next to me, took my hand and locked me in handcuffs.

Family crying 

As he led me out of the dock, I looked up towards my family, who I could hear crying. I recalled my barrister cross-examining a consultant anaesthetist with whom I had worked closely for nearly 20 years; she had witnessed my work at close quarters.

Defence barrister: ‘You said you have known Mr Sellu as a colleague since 1994. You have frequently worked with him in the NHS and in private practice. You have worked with him in the operating theatre?’

Witness: ‘Correct.’

Defence barrister: ‘Many of these cases were complex and high risk?’

Witness: ‘Yes.’

Defence barrister: ‘In relation to clinical work in theatre, has that involved Mr Sellu operating on colleagues referred to him?’

Witness: ‘Yes.’

Defence barrister: ‘Has Mr Sellu been frequently called upon by clinicians in the intensive therapy unit for his opinion?’

Witness: ‘Yes. He is the first port of call for patients with abdominal pain, such is the level of trust of my intensive care colleagues in Mr Sellu.’

Defence barrister: ‘How would you describe him as a clinician?’

Witness: ‘He is a very good doctor and a very good surgeon. He is meticulous in his planning and diagnostics. He is a very caring doctor. I have seen him talk in a sensitive manner to patients with cancer.’

Defence barrister: ‘Has he saved lives?’ The answer had been a resounding ‘Yes’.

Looking after sheep

I do not know my date of birth. Born in Sierra Leone at a time when there were no records of births in my village, I began life in rural Africa where I was destined to find work cultivating rice and looking after a small flock of sheep and goats. I was the first of ten children. 

My parents never went to school and could neither read nor write English. They were subsistence farmers and even by African standards this was a lowly occupation. 

When I was older, my parents could remember the name of the farm where they worked when I was born and could recall that it was about the start of the harvest season, which was typically November. The best calculations placed my year of birth as between 1948 and 1950.

After many years of infertility, my aunt, who was in her early 40s, had decided that the time had come to look for an opportunity to raise a child born to her sisters’ families; she was handed me. 

My aunt, also illiterate, lived in the provincial capital, Bo, which was where I now found myself. She never discussed sending me to school.

Over time, I made friends with the older children who lived a few doors down from us; I would wait for them to get home from school, then go to their house to play. 

I did not speak English, but entreated them to teach me how to read and write, in return for helping launder their school uniforms and serving as goalkeeper in the street football team. I was good in goal but not much use anywhere else on the pitch.

Good progress

I didn’t wear shoes before my teens and went everywhere barefoot. Only children from rich families wore shoes.

My friends said I was making good progress with reading and writing. One day, one of my uncle’s friends, a policeman, came to the house and placed the newspaper he was carrying on a table. By now, I could read whole sentences, despite not knowing what they meant. I recognised many of the words in the newspaper and read them aloud.

He urged my uncle to get me sent to school: ‘Can you not see how well he can read? He can read better than my son who is much older and has been going to school for nearly two years.’

I discovered years later that when the headmaster met up with my aunt on my first day at school, between them they determined that my date of birth would be 22 November 1946. As we did not celebrate birthdays, it would be several years before I was to recognise the significance of this date, soon to be inscribed in my passport.

In the evenings, my school friends and I would huddle under lamp posts on the streets to do our homework until we were forced by tiredness or mosquitoes to go to bed. Electricity was in short supply and expensive. I gained eight subjects at ‘O’-level and five at ‘A’-level. 

I won a scholarship to study medicine in Manchester after taking a gap year to work as a science teacher in my old school, to earn additional money to subsidise my studies.

In September 1968, I arrived in the UK to start a medical degree. It was my first time on an aeroplane.

Adapted from Did He Save Lives? A Surgeon’s Story, £9.99, Sweetcroft Publishing ISBN 9781912892327 from Amazon. His story continues in Independent Practitioner Today next month