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The Dominion
New Zealand
May 20, 2002
by Philip Kitchin

A doctor's massive over-prescription of a common sleeping pill has been blamed for a horrific attack on an elderly Napier woman.

The woman was almost killed when her partner smashed her face with an ashtray in a trance-like attack.

The attack mirrors incidents overseas of unprecedented violence by people prescribed high doses of the drug Triazolam, also known as Halcion and, colloquially, as "mother's little helper".

It is the first reported New Zealand case of the violent side effect, a reaction that has become known in the United States as the Halcion Syndrome.

The woman's family are considering legal action against a doctor and a Napier pharmacy involved in allegedly over-prescribing Triazolam to the woman's former partner. The doctor, named in a court report critical of his prescription, declined to comment.

Police said the woman's "head, shoulders, face and body were completely covered in blood" after her partner repeatedly pounded her face with a heavy glass ashtray as he pinned her down in her bedroom.

The woman's family say she might have been bludgeoned to death had she not managed to escape to a bathroom, lock the door and call for help.

The beating on January 4, 2001, left the woman, who is in her 70s, nearly blind.

But the woman said she was not the only victim. The life of her partner - who tried to kill himself when he snapped out of a state of "automatism" - was in tatters. He is a war veteran described in psychiatric reports as a gentle man with no history of violent or criminal behaviour. The attack was out of character.

The man, in his eighties, was charged with wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.

But the prosecution was halted when the man's Napier lawyer, Steve Manning, revealed evidence by experts who said Triazolam sleeping pills could have been behind the attack.

One of the experts, Wellington psychiatrist David Chaplow, said the man complained to his partner in the days before the incident that there was "something wrong with the medication I am taking".

Dr Chaplow said the attack was "unheralded" and there was a "complete absence of physical aggression" in the man's life.

He said the man's actions bore the hallmarks of automatism, a robotic state where there was a disconnection between a person's mind and their actions.

After being presented with that evidence, Napier crown prosecutor Russell Collins called for a report from a drug expert. Drug scientist Professor Evan Begg, of Christchurch Hospital, said he was "very surprised" at the big doses of Triazolam prescribed so frequently. He said it was highly likely the drug "as used in this man played a large part in causing this incident".

"I believe both the GP and the pharmacist must share some of the responsibility," Professor Begg said.

On April 16, the man was excused from appearing in Napier District Court and Mr Collins told Judge Mark Perkins that the Crown was offering no evidence.

The names of the man and his former partner were suppressed and the case was dismissed and unreported by the media.

The Dominion successfully applied to Judge Perkins for access to the court files on the basis that they would reveal matters of public interest and safety.

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