29 June, 2010
Back in the Fifties...
On 13th December 1953 Dr Basto was charged with poisoning with intent to murder. The victim was his infant daughter, aged a little over two years. He was also charged with attempting to commit suicide.
Dr Basto was a qualified medical practitioner, with a practice in Sydney specialising in eye, ear, nose and throat. He was married in 1952, and they had one daughter (the victim of this offence). He and his wife separated in December 1952, and she had custody of the girl, although Dr Basto was entitled to access once a week or once a fortnight on Sundays, between the morning and 5pm.
Dr Basto lived in a flat in Elizabeth Bay. On Sunday 13th December, he arrived at his wife’s place in the morning to pick up his daughter. He said that he planned to take her to Newport for the day. However it seems his normal arrangements to have an assistant help him care for his daughter fell through, so he decided not to go to Newport and instead played with his daughter in a park near his flat.
At 5pm that afternoon Dr Basto had not returned his daughter to her other. She began phoning his flat at regular intervals from then until 9pm, when she decided to go to the local police station. She arrived at Dr Basto’s flat at around 10pm. The flat was in darkness - she knocked, but received no response. She waited outside the flat for about half an hour in case the Dr had gone somewhere, and then saw a light come on inside. She returned to the flat.
In the meantime, Dr Basto’s secretary, who had also been contacted in the search for the doctor, had managed to get into contact. She lived at the clinic, and had been telephoning his flat constantly from about 7:30pm. There was no answer, but she could hear it ringing. He eventually answered at about 10:30pm. His voice sounded slurred as he asked who was speaking, and when he learned who it was, he asked her to come to the flat.
When she entered the flat, she found it in serious disarray. The infant girl was lying on the floor of the bedroom, unconscious. She was fully clothed, except for shoes and socks. Dr Basto himself was lying on the bed, but he was semi-conscious and unable to get us. He was party clothed, but the left sleeve of his shirt was rolled up, and on his arm were the needle marks of hypodermic injections. Hanging nearby was a solution in a bottle with a rubber tube extending to the bedside, and at the end of the tube was a hypodermic needle. A second tube had been attached to a jet of the gas stove in the kitchen. This tube extended to the bedroom and had been attached to the bed, but the gas was not turned on, and the window was open. There were no hypodermic marks on the child’s arms.
Dr Basto’s secretary carefully inspected the child, then took her into another room and placed her on the bed. She then immediately telephoned the doctor who normally treated Dr Basto. Dr Basto asked her not the call the police, however she did so, as she had already telephoned them to report her concerns before the had left the clinic to come to Dr Basto’s flat. However when the child’s mother arrived at the door, having seen the light on, the secretary thought it best to tell her that the child was not in the flat.
Once the doctor arrived he immediately washed out the child’s stomach, then arranged for both her and her father to be taken to hospital. At the hospital the child was in a stupor, with pale skin and very shallow breathing. She was not responding to sound, and only slightly to the pinching of skin. Her pulse was slightly raised, but her temperature was normal. She remained in a coma for another eighteen hours, until her consciousness began to return. She was drowsy for another few days, and ended up contracting pneumonia.
Although it was clear that she had been drugged, doctors were not sure what type of drug was used. It was assumed to be a barbiturate, possibly morphine. Morphine, chloral hydrate and other drugs were found at Dr Basto’s flat, and each had evidence of recent use. Chloral hydrate is a sedative and hypnotic often used safely with children. Two days earlier, Dr Basto had called in at a chemist near his clinic and discussed with the chemist, who knew him well, the use of chloral hydrate, in particular how it was used for a child of three, as it was known to have an unpleasant taste. The doctor enquired about rectal use, and them bought a box of six ampoules of sodium pentathol.
Eventually the girl recovered in full from both the drug and the pneumonia.
When Dr Basto was admitted to hospital he was described as being delirious, as well as being in an irritable state. He was extremely difficult to examine, and was very noisy and unco-operative. He was diagnosed as recovering from a barbiturate, most likely sodium pentathol, an injectable barbiturate found at his flat. It was also found in the remaining liquid in the suspended bottle, the tube that led from it, and the hypodermic needle. There were also phials of morphine sulphate, including another hypodermic syringe that had been recently used, and contained a residue of morphine sulphate.
Dr Basto gave a long unsworn statement at his trial, stating that he was so overwrought with his domestic troubles and the loneliness that he felt, that on the Sunday afternoon became determined to take his life. He decided to do this by asphyxiating himself with gas from the stove, but decided against this because he did not want to kill his child. What he wanted to do was die with his child in his arms, so he decided to use sodium pentathol. While he was making his preparations he saw the bottle of chloral hydrate on the table and took a dose. It began to take effect on him and he was hazy. However the child would not stay quiet in his arms, so he mixed some chloral hydrate with icecream and gave it to her, with the idea of making her drowsy so that she would stay in his arms for his last moments. He said he had no intention of harming her.
The main issue at Dr Basto’s trial was whether he gave the child the poison with intent to murder her, as he was charged. The Crown case pointed to the evidence of his secretary, who said he was barely conscious when she found him. She said he was largely unintelligible, although she said he asked for a tourniquet and a syringe. He would not answer the questions of the doctor who came to the flat, except to say that he would not tell what happened. At the hospital he also refused to answer questions except after some repeated badgering about what drug he had given the child, he eventually said ‘morphia’. When his wife came to visit him just after midnight at the hospital and asked him what he had done with their child, he answered “oh she will be better off”. His wife described him as anything but normal - he was raving a lot and saying stupid and incomprehensible things.
The following morning the doctor was described as excitable but rational, but could not remember what had happened. The police came to see him at around 7am:
“The accused was lying in bed. I said to him ‘Are you Dr Basto?’, he said ‘Yes, who are you?’, I said ‘I am Detective Sergeant Holmes of Darlinghurst and I have come down to see how you are and try and find out what happened last night’. He said ‘You are my friend, I will tell you. I took poison to kill myself and kill my little girl and take her with me’. I said ‘What kind of poison did you take?’ He said ‘I will tell you later if I live. I do not want to talk about it now. Please go away and let me die’. I said “if you tell me what poison you gave the little girl the doctor might be able to save her life’. He said ‘I won’t talk anymore’. I then left him.”
Detective Sergeant Holmes then visited the doctor’s flat, then returned to the doctor’s bedside at about 10:45 that morning:
“I said to him ‘I have been down to your flat and I am going to tell you certain things and ask you certain questions which you need not answer unless you desire’. He said ‘I do not want to hear anything, let me die’. I showed him the morphine phial produced and said ‘Is this what you gave your little girl?’ He said ‘I want to die, let me die’. I repeated my question to him and he kept repeating the words over and over again ‘I want to die, let me die’. I was of the opinion it was useless trying to carry on a conversation.”
He was released from the hospital that afternoon, and having been ‘deemed insane’, was lodged in the police reception for a week. He was visited by his solicitor who advised him to make no statement to police. When he was discharged, he was interviewed once more by police, but gave the same answer to every questions - that he had been advised by his solicitor not to make a statement. Det. Sgt. Holmes finally asked “Don’t you want to give any explanation of why your room was set up in the manner I have described, and why you attempted to take your own life and the life of your child?’ He said ‘I do not want to make any statement’.” Det. Sgt. Holmes gave evidence of this in court:
“Q: Then did you show him the morphia phial which has been made an exhibit?
A: Yes, I showed him that and I said ‘Is this what you gave your child?’
Q: Then you said ‘I found this on your kitchen sink drain board. Is that what you gave to your child?’
Q: After the accused said “I do not want to make a statement’?
Q: What followed that?
A: I then said to him ‘Do you remember speaking to us at St Vincents Hospital on the morning of the 14th of this month?’, he said ‘Yes. That is when I wanted to die’. I said ‘Do you remember saying to us that you had taken poison to kill yourself and kill your little girl, to take her with you?’ and he said ‘Yes’. I said ‘Remember me asking you what kind of poison you gave the little girl and you said you would tell us later, if you lived? Dr De Meyrick has informed me that you told Dr Maguire that you gave the child morphia. Is that right?’ He said ‘Yes, I have been through time with my relatives and I would not care if it was all ended. I have nothing to live for now’. I said to him ‘You are going to be charged with the attempted murder of your daughter and attempted suicide’. He said ‘I understand that’.”
The defence argued that Dr Basto had only given the child chloral hydrate, which was commonly used as a safe child sedative, and therefore he never had the intention to kill his child.
Dr Basto was convicted of the attempted murder of his daughter, and his own attempted suicide. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and all his appeals failed.
The rule of law that it is a crime to commit suicide, or attempt to do so, was formally done away with in 1983.