Monday 23 April 2018

Student had 'most probably' taken vial of cyanide days before death, inquest hears

Francois Petitjean was found collapsed at a hostel
Francois Petitjean was found collapsed at a hostel

Gareth Naughton

An open verdict was returned at the inquest into the death of a Belgian student who "most probably" had taken cyanide.

Francois Petitjean (23) from Neufchateau in Belgium died two days after he was found collapsed at the Times Hostel in Camden Place on March 7 last year.

His inquest at Dublin Coroner’s Court had heard that two weeks prior to his collapse a friend witnessed him pouring a vial of liquid into his drink which he later claimed was cyanide.

When Mr Petitjean collapsed he was taken to St James’s Hospital. He was treated with three doses of cyanide antidote and responded well but brain death was subsequently confirmed and he died on March 9.

Mr Petitjean was a chemistry student on placement at Dublin Institute of Technology through an exchange programme. Professor Hugh Byrne, head of DIT’s Focas Research Institute, told the inquest that Mr Petitjean had no access to cyanide in the lab where he worked and it would have been “impossible” for him to order chemicals on behalf of the college.

On the final day of the inquest, intensive care consultant at St James’s Hospital, Dr Thomas Ryan said that the damage to Mr Petitjean’s brain was irreversible when he came into A&E. The clinical presentation and Mr Petitjean’s response to the cyanide antidote was “highly suggestive” that he was suffering from cyanide toxicity when he came into the hospital, he told the court.

No pre-mortem test was carried out to confirm the presence of cyanide. It is “most probable” that Mr Petitjean took cyanide or a cyanide-like substance, said Dr Ryan, but it cannot be said for certain.

Following his death Mr Petitjean’s family consented to organ donation with a number of patients benefitting.

A report from DIT submitted to the coroner said that potassium ferricyanide is kept on the premises but this is a non-toxic substance. Speaking from the body of the court, Prof Byrne said that poisonous hydrogen cyanide is “easily made”. He speculated that Mr Petitjean may have been able to make a substance which mimicked it.

Following the autopsy, pathologist Dr Stephen Finn initially said that the circumstances and findings were consistent with cyanide poisoning. However, coroner Dr Brian Farrell said that he had submitted a supplementary report saying that in the absence of an anatomical cause of death or positive toxicology for cyanide or another toxin “no objective cause can be inferred from autopsy”. He added that there was “clinical corroboration of cyanide ingestion" but it was not possible to exclude other poisonous substances which are not routinely screened for at the State Laboratory.

Dr Farrell said that he is satisfied that there are no suspicious circumstances in the death and that the clinical signs and Mr Petitjean’s reaction to the antidote were consistent with cyanide poisoning. However, he said that in the absence of a toxicology screen confirming the presence of cyanide or an objective cause of death, he was returning an open verdict.

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