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Defendant acquitted of murder due to excessive
prescriptive doses of Valium

The Law Society Gazette (p2177),
Wednesday, 22nd July, 1987
Regina v. McGuire

The defendant was a 60-year-old Glaswegian housewife with no history of violent behaviour. In January 1979, after 30 years of marriage, her husband left her to live with another woman. Consequently she complained of 'anxiety and tension'. Her GP prescribed diazepam (2mg twice daily) which she took for several months. However, as her symptoms subsided she reduced her intake, ceasing altogether by July 1979.

In January 1980 a summons for divorce was issued on her behalf which included a substantial financial claim.

In March 1980 her husband returned, following an apparent wish for reconciliation, but which was probably financially motivated.

The reconciliation was a complete failure as the husband continued to see the other woman and clearly intended to return to her.

By 25th March, the defendant was very agitated and distressed by events. She arranged to see her solicitor the next day with a view to proceeding with the divorce.

On the morning of 26th March, because of her continued anxiety, the defendant visited her GP. She did not see him personally, but his receptionist arranged for her to receive a prescription of 72 x 5mg diazepam tablets labelled: 'take when necessary'; the defendant had the prescription dispensed forthwith and took 5mg diazepam between 10.30 and 11.00am. As she was still very nervous, she took further doses at noon, 2.00, 3.45 and 5pm. She saw her solicitor at 4.30pm and went home.

At about 6pm the defendant was preparing supper, and using a sharp kitchen knife, when her husband came in. A fierce row developed. She apparently lunged at him [the husband], stabbing him to death, and then ran out of the house to her daughter's home. She explained what had happened and then promptly fell asleep on the sofa. The police were called and arrested the defendant at about 7.30pm.

After she had been taken into custody, the defendant took a further dose of diazepam at 9.00pm. A blood sample taken at 00.20am on 27th March showed a diazepam level of 0.5mg/l, and a nordiazepam level of 0.6mg/l. There was no alcohol present.

On 8th July, 1980, the defendant was charged with murder.

At the trial, Professor Michael Rawlins said that he believed the tragedy was probably precipitated by the excessive amount (30mg) of diazepam which the defendant had consumed in the preceding twelve-hour period before her husband's death (she had eaten almost nothing during that time). In his view, the drug was responsible for the paradoxical aggressive outburst by the defendant who was not in full possession of her faculties at the relevant time.

She remembered experiencing subjective symptoms of 'muzziness' in her head and of her feet 'not touching the ground', which are typical responses to excessive diazepam dosage.

Professor Rawlins stated that paradoxical aggressive outbursts are a recognised adverse effect of diazepam; they are probably caused by the suppression of mechanisms which normally inhibit aggressive outbursts.

The judge directed the jury that the evidence would support a verdict of 'not proven'. However the jury acquitted the defendant completely, presumably on the basis that the defendant was not responsible for her acts owing to the effects of excessive diazepam.

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