Death of St Peter’s professor ruled accidental

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Professor Steven Rawlings, a professor of astrophysics at St Peter’s College, Oxford, died of a heart attack while being restrained in a headlock by his friend and colleague Dr Devinder Sivia after becoming violent and aggressive, an inquest heard.

Rawlings, 50, who had been suffering from mental problems, died at Sivia’s Oxfordshire home on 11 January 2012, after attacking his friend. Oxfordshire coroner Darren Salter ruled that Sivia, 49, had acted in self-defence, and recorded a verdict of accidental death.

Sivia, a Stipendiary Lecturer in Mathematics for the Sciences at St John’s, had invited Rawlings to stay the night at his house in Southmoor, after being concerned for his mental wellbeing. Rawlings had suffered from a mental breakdown in April 2011, and friends of the professor told the inquest that he had been acting strangely on the day of the incident.

Sivia described how Rawlings was confused and agitated before he suddenly became “like a man possessed”. He said, “All of a sudden [Rawlings] took up a statuesque pose with a look in his eyes that I had never seen before. He sat bolt upright with his fists closed and a menacing look in his eyes. Then he said quietly ‘I am going to kill you’.’ Rawlings then punched Sivia in the face. “He was screaming ‘you’re going to die, you’re going to die’,” Sivia told the hearing.

Sivia, who had been arrested on suspicion of murder and then released following the incident, managed to hold his friend in a headlock for 20 minutes. This cut off Rawlings’ air supply, causing him to have a heart attack. Sivia told the inquest that Rawlings had said, “Goodbye, cruel world,” before his body went limp, but he had thought that his friend was playing dead. Sivia said, ‘This is a line from a Pink Floyd song, Goodbye Cruel World, from their album The Wall. I thought this might be a ploy to release him because it was so melodramatic.’

A video of a police interview with Sivia was shown to the inquest, in which the mathematician demonstrated how he had restrained Rawlings. Sivia told police, “I was just trying to control him like that to stop him attacking me.’

Pathologist Dr Nicholas Hunt told the coroner that the cause of the death was cardiac arrest, following compression of the neck during restraint in a prone position. He also said that injuries to Rawlings, including a fractured right hand that is likely to have been caused by landing a punch, were consistent with Sivia’s account to the police.

The coroner’s court heard that after Rawlings died, Sivia emailed his friend’s wife, who was in America for business matters, saying, “I’m terribly sorry but I have killed him, sorry, Devinder.” Sivia had been in contact with the clinical researcher throughout the day, updating her on her husband’s condition. Following Sivia’s arrest, Linda Rawlings had expressed her support for the mathematician, saying in a statement, “Steve and Devinder were best friends since college, and I believe this is a tragic accident.” She continued, “I do not believe that Steve’s death is murder and I do not believe Devinder should be tarnished in this way.”

Sivia and Rawlings had been friends since they were undergraduates at St John’s College, Cambridge, in the 1980s. In 1999 they co-authored a book, Foundations of Science Mathematics. Sivia described Rawlings as one of his “eldest and closest friends”, and called his death a “tragedy”. He said that he was “overwhelmed by the unconditional support that [he] received from every quarter,” including from Rawlings’ wife and family.

The coroner said, “Devinder Sivia acted at all times in self defence and out of fear. It was an attempt to restrain Prof Rawlings and not to kill or injure him. As a result, Prof Rawlings’ death was not an intended consequence and therefore an accident.’ He continued, “This is a very sad case indeed.”

As well as holding a fellowship at St Peter’s College, Rawlings had been head of the sub-Department of Astrophysics at Oxford from 2005 to 2010. He played a key role in the redevelopment of the Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station in Cornwall, and was one of the lead scientists in the international Square Kilometre Array Project.

Following Rawlings death, Martin Damzer, Master of St Peter’s College, said in a statement on the college’s website, “He was a much liked and admired tutor and colleague within the College and will be greatly missed.”

Sam Lecacheur, a physics undergraduate at St Peter’s, told Cherwell at the time of Rawling’s passing, “He really was a good tutor and a great person. He achieved so much in his field, and he was very inspirational as a teacher. What’s happened is a real shock.”

The University Press Office declined to comment on the inquest. In January, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Andrew Hamilton, said, “The entire University community has been profoundly saddened and shocked by the tragic and untimely death of Professor Steve Rawlings. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.” [mm-hide-text]%%IMG4568%%[/mm-hide-text]

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