(Article changed on July 10, 2013 at 07:11)A showdown is coming Friday, July 12, in the Alexander Litvinenko death case. It will occur at a hearing chaired by coroner Sir Robert Owen. This disgraced coroner will have perhaps his last chance to mitigate the damage he's already done to his own reputation.
Litvinenko is a reputed former KGB spy who died suspiciously in London in 2006. Owen became coroner last fall when the original coroner was dismissed over a scandal that had engulfed him.
Now Owen's handling of the case has resulted in the eruption of yet another scandal. At its heart is Owen's refusal to perform the duties he was retained for. His responsibility is to determine what caused the death of Litvinenko. Was it polonium poisoning as has been widely reported in the press? Or was thallium the agent of poisoning as many other media reports have claimed? Or was it something else?
Surely in the nearly seven intervening years it should have been possible to get to the bottom of this and rule on the cause of death.
Or was it found that the cause is scientifically indeterminable? If so, that information should not be kept secret. It's high time for some transparency in this case. Litvinenko's widow and son deserve to know the cause of death now, not later.
But instead of focusing on his proper job of ruling on the cause and manner of death, Owen has been conducting an illicit criminal investigation under the guise of a coroner's inquest. The British rules for coroners specifically forbid that kind of activity.
In addition to looking for the cause of death, coroners are charged with a responsibility for ruling on the manner of death. Was it a homicide, a suicide, an accident? Or is there insufficient evidence to know? In the case of a homicide, the matter of who is responsible for the death is outside of the coroner's responsibilities.
Owen has nevertheless persisted in his self-styled criminal detective work. It is unclear what his motive is. He is a high court judge who is facing mandatory retirement next year. Some speculate this is his last case, and that he wants to inflate its significance beyond that of ordinary coroner's work, albeit on a high profile case. But pursuing a rogue criminal investigation seems to make it more likely that his career will end in failure and disrepute.
After media reports exposed Owen's rogue criminal work, he concocted a scheme to legitimize what he was doing. He wrote to the Lord Chancellor, head of the Justice Ministry, requesting that his hunt for criminal culpability be transferred to a different venue, one that would not have the legal restriction that is imposed on coroners regarding criminality. The Ministry quickly responded, promising an answer by July 3.
That was a crafty initiative on Owen's part. However it served to deepen the scandal. That's because his letter to the Lord Chancellor requesting the change offered facts that aren't factual. The misleading information presented by Owen centers on a statement purportedly made by Litvinenko about "those whom he suspects of being responsible for his death." But that so-called deathbed statement has been long known to have been a hoax. The hoaxer has even confessed.
Once Owen's fabrication came out in media reports, the Justice Ministry promptly notified Owen that they would not be making a decision about the requested transfer "anytime soon." The Lord Chancellor has apparently seen through Owen's ruse.
Friday's hearing will show whether or not Owen is willing to stop thumbing his nose at British law, to cease trying to drag other officials like the Lord Chancellor into his scheme, and to start performing his assigned duties. If he has scientific evidence on the cause of death, he should disclose it and enter a ruling. Likewise regarding the manner of death. Or if the evidence simply isn't there, he should honestly admit it and rule that the case is indeterminate, and close it once and for all. This may be his last chance to save even a modicum of dignity for himself.