Death of St Peter’s astrophysics professor deemed accidental

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An inquest into the death of Professor Stephen Rawlings, an astrophysics tutor at St Peter’s College, has ruled it as accidental.

The professor, who had been known to suffer from mental health problems, died in January this year from a heart attack, brought on whilst being physically restrained by his friend, Dr Devinder Sivia, a mathematics tutor at St John’s.

Shortly after the death, Dr Sivia emailed Rawlings’ wife, who was abroad on business, with the message, “I’m terribly sorry but I have killed him, sorry, Devinder.”

The coroner at the inquest, however, deemed that the death was accidental and that Dr Sivia had acted in self-defence. Even at the time of her husband’s death, Mrs Rawlings rallied behind Dr Sivia, issuing a statement through police to say: “I do not believe Steve’s death is murder and I do not believe Devinder should be tarnished in this way.”

Concerned for his friend’s mental health, Dr Sivia had invited Prof. Rawlings to stay at his house in Southmoor while his wife was on a business trip in the USA. However, as Dr Sivia told the coroner’s court, Rawlings subsequently became “like a man possessed”.

“Unfortunately”, he wrote in a statement, “the delusion and paranoia associated with his illness got the better of him, and my attempt to help Steve in his relapse came to a nightmarish end.”

At the inquest, Dr Sivia related the erratic behaviour his friend was exhibiting: “He 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’.”

Prof Rawlings punched Dr Sivia, and was screaming “You’re going to die, you’re going to die,” the court heard. Dr Sivia managed to restrain his friend, and held him in a head lock for twenty minutes, which cut off his air supply, resulting in the heart attack.

Sivia told the court that Rawlings cried out ‘Goodbye, cruel world’ before going limp. However, Dr Sivia claimed that he thought the use of the phrase was only melodramatic, and a reference to a Pink Floyd song he had mentioned earlier in the day. Sivia had not let go, he said, because he feared his friend was only playing dead.

Forensic pathologist Nicholas Hunt ruled that the cause of death was cardiac arrest during a restraint in the prone position, including compression of the neck. Dr Sivia’s account of being attacked was corroborated by the fact that Prof Rawlings had a fractured right hand, and he himself had injuries to his face.

The coroner at the inquest, Darren Salter, coming to a verdict of accidental death, commented: “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.”

Calling his friend’s death ‘a tragedy’, Dr Sivia said that he had been “overwhelmed by the unconditional support that [he] received from every quarter”, including that of the Rawlings family.

Dr Tony Lynas-Gray, research assistant at the astrophysics department, wrote in an obituary: “Stephen Rawlings was a great man and a great astronomer. He was very much liked by his students and colleagues.

His comments were echoed by Mark Damazer, the Master of St Peter’s College, who said: “Steve was a scientist of world renown and distinction… Steve taught first year undergraduates here at St Peter’s and was a very welcome presence for all of us.”

Dr Sivia and Professor Rawlings had been close friends for thirty years since meeting as undergraduates at St John’s College, Cambridge.

They had also co-authored a book together entitled ‘Foundations of Science and Mathematics’. Dr Sivia identified Rawlings as “one of my oldest and closest friends.”