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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 20th November 2011

The 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko is back in the news as a London coroner, Alex Reid, is conducting pre-inquest hearings to determine how the inquest, due to take place in 2012, will be conducted.

Though the murder weapon was determined to be polonium-210, a radioactive isotope, and not anything related to plants, I find the case of interest because of the theme that underlies my talk about ‘Medical Murderers’.

I begin that talk by saying that getting away with murder is about no-one suspecting that murder has taken place. In other words, you want your chosen poison either to produce no symptoms or to mimic those of some natural fatal illness and you want to be able to administer it without arousing any suspicion.

It’s a lot harder to do these days, mostly because we place a higher value on each individual life, but in the past, when enquiries would not be thorough, using poisons that were either tasteless or whose taste had been masked was a good first step to successful murder.

Since many plant substances are bitter, you might need some culinary skill to mix them with food that would mask the taste and that may be one reason why poison is often thought of as a murder weapon for women though, of course, the reduced need for strength and the avoidance of gore are also put forward as reasons a woman might favour poisoning.

I’ve never come across a tasteless plant poison and that may be why the metallic poison, arsenic, seems to have been a frequent choice. It is tasteless so there was no danger of a victim either being put off by the taste or commenting on a strange taste that would arouse suspicion if they died shortly after.

When Alexander Litvinenko fell ill at the beginning of November 2006 the ‘usual suspect’, ricin was initially suggested as the weapon though this was quickly passed over in favour of the metallic poison, thallium, that was the weapon of choice of serial murderer Graham Young.

Further extensive testing led to the idea that polonium-210 had been administered and extremely thorough investigations led to the identification of a bread crumb trail leading, via roads and hotels and, even, aircraft, all the way back to Russia.

The prime suspect for the murder was named by the authorities and attempts made to extradite him to Britain. But, the Russian government refused to co-operate, leading to speculation that someone with the state apparatus had an involvement.

It seems as though Andrei Lugovoi, the main suspect, along with another Russian, Dmitry Kovtun, who met Litvinenko on the day he was poisoned, will give evidence to the inquest by video link. It remains to be seen whether either man is willing to offer any useful information though, it seems to me, Lugovoi might use inquest evidence as a means of prejudicing any criminal trial. He must, presumably, be concerned that one day the Russian government may decide its interests are best served by granting the UK’s extradition request.

But, the mystery for me is why that poison was chosen? It has been suggested that the perpetrator(s) did not believe the polonium would be identified so that death by natural causes might be accepted. On the other hand, it could be that this was one time when the murderer(s) wanted people to know the lengths that were acceptable to punish what they regarded as a traitor. The aim was not to have no-one suspect that murder had taken place but rather to make sure that everyone knew.