The family of a woman who they suspect was killed is suing a health trust that allegedly stored her corpse incorrectly, allowing it to decompose to the point that experts were unable to rule out third-party involvement in her death, the Guardian can reveal.
Emily Whelan, 25, was found unresponsive in her bedroom in Leeds on 7 November 2016 and was rushed by ambulance to Leeds General Infirmary (LGI). Her family was told that Emily, who had epilepsy, had experienced a seizure, but she had never had any significant issues with the condition she had managed since childhood.
She died in hospital the next day, with an initial cause of death given as a hypoxic-ischaemic brain injury – lack of oxygen to the brain – after a cardiac arrest. The underlying cause of the cardiac arrest was not determined.
Emily’s family immediately suspected foul play and told police they believed an individual known to Emily had questions to answer. After 10 months of communications with West Yorkshire police and the coroner, a forensic postmortem was finally ordered. But when the pathologist came to examine Emily’s body, it had decomposed, hampering his ability to conduct a thorough investigation. A police investigation concluded there was no third-party involvement.
“We feel we’ve been robbed of getting any answers, of getting to the truth,” Emily’s mother, Caramella Brennansaid.
Emily, a health and social care graduate with an ambition to work with young offenders, had a baby while at university, and completed her studies while raising the child and working part-time at a nursery. “She was determined to make a good life for herself and her son,” Brennan said.
It emerged that on the day Emily died, her body was transferred to the Leeds mortuary, managed by Leeds teaching hospitals NHS trust, and placed in a body fridge for storage. Her body remained in storage at the Leeds mortuary until 23 December 2016, when she was transferred to the Bradford mortuary, which is managed by the city of Bradford metropolitan district council.
In a patient admission form dated 23 December 2016, a member of staff at the Bradford mortuary recorded that Emily’s body was already “Poor Decomposed”.
In a letter to Emily’s mother, the city of Bradford said that Emily’s body was in an advanced state of decomposition when they had received it. Her body had “deteriorated to such an extent that she was unrecognisable”. It read: “Her face was already black. (Her) body had begun to mummify and mould growth was appearing on her face, torso and legs … Her body had not been frozen at [the Leeds mortuary]”.
Emily’s body was then kept in storage in a body fridge at the Bradford mortuary for further 10 months.
In about mid-September in 2017, staff at the Bradford mortuary were advised by the coroner for West Yorkshire that a forensic pathologist had been instructed to carry out a forensic postmortem examination.
On 1 October 2017, Emily’s family were informed by a police officer that Emily’s body had decomposed and was mouldy and unrecognisable. Her family was advised not to view Emily owing to its very poor physical state.
Emily’s family have been left with “distressing and grotesque images” in their minds of what they think her body looks like, court documents state. “I can be washing up and I just get pictures in my head of Emily, because I’ve read it all,” said Brennan. “Words like ‘mummification’, ‘putrefaction’, ‘slippage’, ‘leakage’. I’ve got these images in my head, and they won’t go away.”
Crucially, the pathologist was unable to categorically rule out third-party involvement in Emily’s death.
The forensic postmortem instructed by the coroner was carried out by Dr MS Lyall on 11 October 2017 – almost a year after she had died. In a postmortem report dated 12 February 2018, Dr Lyall stated: “Taking all of the information and findings into consideration, it is my opinion that this young woman ultimately died of an acute hypoxic-ischaemic brain injury following a cardiac arrest, but the cause of the cardiac arrest remains undetermined.”
Lyall said he “carefully considered” whether Emily’s death could have been caused “by injuries inflicted by another person”. He said his examination of the body was “severely hampered by changes of decomposition”. He said in the absence of obvious traumatic injury, he considered the possibility of an asphyxia death, that is, strangling.
He said that in the first examination, the pathologist had mentioned “a few petechiae in the eyes” – tiny red spots that can be a sign of strangulation – but they were not visible by the time he conducted his own assessment, adding “the decompositional changes could have obscured any that were there”.
Jane Monckton-Smith, a forensic criminologist, who has assisted the family, said: “Many homicides are not identified, and even when family or friends raise legitimate concerns they are not always listened to.
“The Hidden Homicide project at the University of Gloucestershire looks at cases like this one where there were clear suspicions and concerns that weren’t acted on early, and then couldn’t be acted on later. It is essential that professionals – be they criminal justice, forensic, medical or coronial – demonstrate enough professional curiosity to ensure that the suspicions are recognised and acted on at the earliest opportunity. This death was so badly handled that a potential killer will never be brought to justice, or even publicly accused.”
The experience has left Emily’s family with mental health conditions. Her mother has developed severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and worsened anxiety and depression.
City of Bradford has apologised and accepted that its actions amounted to a breach of the family’s rights under article 8 of the European Convention to Human Rights (ECHR), which protects the right to private life, which includes the preservation of mental stability. The authority has paid damages to the family.
However, Leeds teaching hospitals NHS trust has denied any responsibility and is contesting the claims. Emily’s family is suing the trust, and a civil court trial is to take place at Leeds county court on 24 November.
Brennan said she wanted the trust to apologise for failing to store Emily’s body correctly in the first month, and to put measures in place to prevent a similar tragedy.
“I just want them to admit what they’ve done, and like Bradford, make sure this does not happen again. We just expect our dead to be treated with dignity and respect. They showed my daughter none. It can’t happen again. I just want them to apologise and put something in place and to make sure it doesn’t happen to other people.”
A statement from Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust said: “This matter is being heard in the Leeds County Court next week. Liability is in dispute and it would be inappropriate for the Trust to comment further at this time.”
A Bradford Council spokesperson said: “This has clearly been a very difficult time for the family of Ms Whelan and we understand the distress and upset that this must have caused them. The case against the Council was settled.”
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