What is the "bureau of lost causes"?
10 years ago (in 2010) the Dutch nurse Lucia de Berk was acquitted, at a retrial, of a charge of 7 murders and 3 attempted murders at hospitals in the Hague in a number of years leading up to just a few days before the memorable date of “9-11”. The last murder was supposed to have been committed in the night of September 4, 2001. The next afternoon, hospital authorities reported a series of unexplained deaths to the health inspectorate and to the police. They also put Lucia de B., as she became known in the Dutch media, onto “non-active”. The media reported that about 30 suspicious deaths and resuscitations were being investigated. The hospital authorities not only reported what they believed to be terrible crimes, they also believed that they knew who was the perpetrator.
The wheels of justice turn slowly, so there was a trial and a conviction; an appeal and a retrial and a conviction; finally an appeal to the supreme court. It took till 2006 for the conviction (a life sentence, which in the Netherlands is only terminated when the convict leaves prison in a coffin) to become irrevocable. Only new evidence could overturn it. New scientific interpretations of old evidence is not considered new evidence. There was no new evidence.
Yet already, in 2003-2004, some people with an inside connection to the Juliana Children’s Hospital were already getting very concerned about the case. Having spoken of their concerns, in confidence, with the highest authorities, but being informed that nothing could be done, they started to approach journalists. Slowly but surely the media started getting interested in the case again – the story was not anymore the story of the terrible witch who had murdered babies and old people for no apparent reason whatsoever except for the pleasure in killing, but of an innocent person who was mangled by bad luck, incompetent statistics, and a monstrous bureaucratic system which once in motion could not be stopped.
Among the supporters of Metta de Noo and Ton Derksen were a few professional statisticians, because Lucia’s initial conviction had been based on a faulty statistical analysis of faulty data supplied by the hospital and analysed by amateurs and misunderstood by lawyers. Others were computer scientists, some were civil servants at high levels of several government organs appalled at what they saw going on; there were independent scientists, a few medical specialists, a few persons with some personal connection with Lucia; and friends of such people. Some of us worked quite intensively together and in particular worked on the internet site for Lucia, building an English language version of it, and bringing it to the attention of scientists world-wide. When newspapers like the New York Times and The Guardian started writing about an alleged miscarriage of justice in the Netherlands involving wrongly interpreted statistics, supported by comments from top UK statisticians, the Dutch journalists had news for the Dutch newspapers, and that kind of news certainly got noticed in the corridors of power in the Hague.
Fast forward to 2010, when judges not only pronounced Lucia innocent, but actually stated in court that Lucia together with her colleague nurses had fought with utmost professionality to save the lives of babies which were unnecessarily endangered by medical errors of the medical specialists entrusted with their care. They also mentioned that just because the time of a death of a terminally ill person could not be predicted in advance, it did not mean that it was necessarily unexplainable and hence suspicious.
A few of us, exhilarated by our victory, decided to band together and form some sort of collective which would look at other “lost causes” involving possible miscarriages of justice where science had been misused. Aready, I had turned my own research activities to the burgeoning field of forensic statistics, and already I was deeply involved in the Kevin Sweeney case, and the case of José Booij. Soon we had a web-site and were hard at work, but soon after this, a succession of mishaps occurred. Firstly, Lucia’s hospital paid for an expensive lawyer to put pressure on me on behalf of the chief paediatrician of the Juliana Children’s Hospital. I had namely written some information of some personal nature about this person (who coincidentally was the sister-in-law of Metta de Noo and Ton Derksen) on my home page at the University of Leiden. I felt it was crucially in the public interest to understand how the case against Lucia had started and this certainly had a lot to do with personalities of a few key persons at that hospital. I also wrote to the hospital asking for further data on the deaths and other incidents in the wards where Lucia had worked, in order to complete the professional independent statistical investigation which should have taken place when the case started. I was threatened and intimidated. I found some protection from my own university who actually paid expensive lawyer fees on my behalf. However, my lawyer soon advised me to give way by removing offensive material from internet, since if this went to court, the hospital would most likely win. I would be harming the reputation of rich persons and of a powerful organisation, and I would have to pay for the harm I did. Secondly, on some ordinary internet fora I wrote some sentences defending José Booij, but which pointed a finger of blame at the person who had reported her to the police. That was not a rich person, but certainly a clever person, and they reported me to the police. I became a suspect in a case of alleged slander. Got interviewed by a nice local policeman. And a few months later I got a letter from the local criminal courts saying that if I paid 200 Euro administrative fees, the case would be administratively closed.
This led to the Bureau of Lost Causes shutting down its activities for a while. But it is now time for a come-back, a “re-boot”. In the meantime I did not do nothing, but got involved in half a dozen further cases, learning more and more about law, about forensic statistics, about scientific integrity, about organisations, psychology and social media. The BOLC is back.