By Phil Vine
You know that feeling you get when you don't quite finish your cup of tea? That incomplete sensation that stays with you for ages? That's the best way I can describe how I felt after the trial of convicted wife murderer Colin Bouwer.
On the fifth day of the new millennium, 47-year-old Annette Bouwer was found dead in her matrimonial bed. Dunedin psychiatrist Colin Bouwer was sentenced to life in prison for poisoning her. In my mind there always seemed to be something slightly amiss.
The medical and circumstantial evidence against this peculiar man seemed overwhelming at the time: Bouwer had written out false prescriptions for diabetic pills; he'd lied to doctors saying there were none in the house; the effects of those tablets were the same as the symptoms that put his wife in hospital; and those were the same drugs they found at Annette's autopsy.
As if that wasn't incriminating enough, Bouwer contacted other clinicians to find out if these diabetic drugs were traceable after death. He told his mother-in-law not to come visit from South Africa because Annette would probably be dead by the time she arrived and told his sister-in-law that Dunedin was the perfect place to get away with murder because the police weren't sophisticated enough to catch anyone. Legend has it this quote is framed and nailed on the police station wall.
Yes, if Bouwer was a method actor preparing for the part of an extremely intelligent but not-so--smart murderer, he couldn't have done a more thorough job.
Why did Bouwer murder his wife? The prosecution threw out two motives – firstly insurance, though the modest pay-out wouldn't have meant much to the head of psychological medicine at University of Otago. The second motive was love. The Crown put forward the theory that he killed his wife to be with his alleged mistress, a fellow psychiatrist. But surely divorce would have been a lot easier. He'd broken up a marriage once before.
Then there was the crazy stuff – circumstantial evidence that fairly much destroyed Bouwer's character and credibility. Lies and tall stories emanated from his side of the court room like wafts from the back of a milking shed. It made him look like Walter Mitty on speed, Baron von Munchhausen's exaggerating older brother.
Bouwer falsified medical reports and shaved off his hair to bolster claims he had prostate cancer – a lie said the prosecution – and the doctor claimed he'd been imprisoned and tortured by the South African security forces for sympathising with the ANC, even lost a testicle in the process – all lies according to the Crown. The judge in his summing-up saw fit to remind the jury that Bouwer was on trial for murder not telling porkies.
And then we come to the craziest sideshow of all, the thing that everyone remembers about this case. While Bouwer was on trial for murder here, his adopted son, Colin Bouwer Jr, was also on trial in South Africa. His son's offence: murder. Whom did he murder? His wife. The only difference was the alleged method – strangulation rather than poisoning. It shouldn't have had the slightest bearing on the case but you can't help but wonder.
By the end of the six-week trial, the picture looked pretty bleak for the well-liked, well-respected doctor. Womaniser. Liar. Forger. Fantasist. All of those accusations were thrown. Most of them stuck. Little wonder the jury allowed themselves time for just one cigarette break before making their decision. To add to his long list of medical qualifications, the doctor became Colin Bouwer, MD, convicted wife poisoner.
But here's the missing mouthful from the cup of tea – things about the case that didn't make sense. For a start, Annette and Colin's children, Anthea and Greg, 16 and 18, did not believe their father could have possibly done it. That might have been a natural reaction from two teenagers who lost their mother and then their father. Believing that your dad killed your mum would be a difficult truth to accept. But 15 years later both of them firmly support Bouwer. They say he is not a murderer.
When we interviewed Anthea and Greg just after the trial. They thought their mother was sick with an underlying illness and had taken her own life. At the time they thought she had found their dad's stockpile of diabetic pills and had done away with herself. Annette left an ambiguous note, which read: Thank you for everything.
There were two other bits of evidence that left me uncomfortable with the verdict. Both of them support the kids' theory. Firstly one of the drugs found in Annette's body was Metformin. That is an extremely foul-tasting tablet. It seems she couldn't have taken it orally without knowing what she was doing. And secondly Annette's symptoms, muscle weakness, double vision and dizziness, were evidenced at least a month before Bouwer was supposed to have started poisoning her, which raised the idea of an underlying illness.
The problem for the defence at the time was no one seemed to be able to identify this mystery disease. It would be 13 years before a viable explanation came to light, and only then through bizarre coincidence, now the hallmark of this incredible case.
This is how it unfolded. Professor Vincent Marks, a world expert on diabetic medicine, flew out to New Zealand as a defence witness in the trial. He returned home to Guildford in England and wrote a book called Insulin Murders on some of the more famous cases he's given evidence at. His book contained a chapter on the murder of Annette Bouwer, a case he had always had reservations about. Prof Marks believed the pills in Annette's body weren't sufficient to cause her death.
Enter investment analyst Peter Filmer, a man with an extraordinary mathematical brain who makes up probability models. This, he says, is a million to one chance. Mr Filmer buys a house off Prof Marks, they become best buds and the professor gives him a copy of his new book.
When Mr Filmer reads the chapter on Annette, he seizes on one word – thymoma, a tiny tumour found at Annette's autopsy. Its significance was overlooked by every single doctor and scientific expert at the time. Mr Filmer has no medical training but he suffers from a rare neurological illness called myasthenia gravis (MG). He recognised Annette's thymoma as a clear symptom of his own disease. Might she have had what he's got?
Mr Filmer went on to read about Annette's liver deformities and her heart damage and became convinced. He obtained all of Annette's medical notes and documents from Bouwer's trial and discovered in statements and affidavits many more symptoms of MG: fatigability, double vision, muscle weakness, difficulty swallowing, paralysis.
These suspicions were cemented by consultant neurologist Dr Rudy Capildeo, fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. He took a fresh look at the evidence and wrote a medico-legal report. In his opinion Annette suffered from this rare neurological disease myasthenia gravis. He went on to say it may have been the principal cause of her death.
Dr Capildeo's report cleared the way for a possible appeal to the Privy Council against Bouwer's conviction for murder. They would argue that Annette died of natural causes. But that's not the end of it. Even if the MG was proven as the cause of death, there were a number of unanswered questions. Chief among them: What were those diabetic pills doing in her body, even if they didn't kill her?
The stage was set for the final twist. Mr Filmer flew out to New Zealand. He wanted to personally present this new medical diagnosis to Bouwer. Together with the doctor's barrister, David More, they rocked up to Rolleston Prison.
Both men came out with their heads reeling. Bouwer had made a series of confessions: First he confesses to surreptitiously giving his wife small amounts of diabetic pills to get her into hospital. He claims she was so reluctant to see a doctor, something echoed by the children, that he had to take drastic action to get her treated.
Then, for the first time, Bouwer actually admits to killing his wife. He chillingly describes mixing up a cocktail of anti-diabetic drugs in hot water and leaving the glass by her bed. He tells Mr Filmer he came back later and injected her with a potentially fatal dose of insulin.
Bouwer claims Annette took the drink herself, knowingly, part of an agreement they had to help each other die if they became severely debilitated. The doctor says his wife was very sick with this mystery illness, and she asked him to kill her.
Did Mr Filmer believe him? Well, he says it's a plausible story. It's possible. But the investment analyst will head home to England with more questions than answers. What began in his mind as a clear-cut miscarriage of justice has descended into realms of uncertainty. Did Bouwer take part in an act of assisted suicide as his children now accept and believe? Or did he take it upon himself to perform a mercy killing, without her agreement?
That's not forgetting the third option – status quo, that Bouwer was indeed the man the jury convicted, a cold-blooded murderer who pre-meditated his wife's poisoning and continues to spin lies about it. Dr Capildeo offers up a macabre postscript to that possibility: Had Bouwer only waited just a little bit longer, then disease might have done the job for him.
source: newshub archive