Wednesday 27 January 2021
The astonishing case of Emily Whelan, and decisions and delays that cannot be undone
[Clip: Phone call to Sussex police]
I’m sitting in my car on the phone to Sussex Police.
I’m in a garden centre car park, with Claudia in the back, she's helping me report this story. And we’re looking out on a bleak, wet January day – we’re cold, and I can tell I’m getting annoyed.
The Sussex Police press office has already emailed to tell me they’re not going to do an interview about Susan Nicholson’s death.
They say that because of a new, live inquest, they can’t comment.
But by now I’ve worked out I want to ask them three new questions that aren’t directly about Susan’s death, and those questions are: what are they doing differently now because of how they failed her? Has the whole force done proper training yet to learn about coercive control and domestic abuse? And why on earth did they threaten the Skeltons, a bereaved couple in their eighties, with having to pay the police’s legal costs when all these people want is to find out what really happened to their daughter?
I’ll explain this more as I tell you this story, I know I’m getting ahead of myself, but in this carpark, with the rain thrumming on the car roof, I know I’m also getting nowhere.
Louise: I knew he'd hate being recorded.
Claudia: That’s a no...
Louise: That’s a no from them. It’s a shame because the questions I was going to ask him were not about the Susan Nicholson and Caroline Devlin investigation, which was what they objected to talking about because there’s an Article 2 inquest. They were actually about the way the police force had changed, if they’ve changed, what their levels of training now on coercive control and how they treated the Skelton’s subsequently, nothing to do with the investigation at all. So we’ll just have to email them those questions, which I’ll do now.
I'm Louise Tickle, and you’re listening to Hidden Homicides, a podcast series from Tortoise Media.
In this episode... I investigate a new case: it’s a harrowing story about a decision that cannot be undone – and it’s leaving a family feeling like they will never get an answer.
If you haven’t listened to episodes 1 and 2, I’d recommend you go back. Because right now, I want to jump back into the story of Susan Nicholson, a death that could have been prevented…
And as always, I need to warn you: this episode – and this series – is going to detail distressing cases of violence, and coercion and controlling behaviour against women. Some of it is very difficult to hear. And so listener discretion is advised.
It was months after Susan died in 2011 that her parents – Peter and Elizabeth Skelton – found out that Robert Trigg’s previous partner had also died suddenly.
She was called Caroline Devlin, and she was a single mum to four children. It was 2006, and the police failed to investigate her sudden death at the time – when she was found blue and unresponsive in the home where she lived with Robert Trigg.
So even when Susan died in remarkably similar circumstances 5 years later, it seemed unbelievable that the police didn’t appear to feel any need to dig deeper.
And the thing is – the police’s failings weren’t confined to Susan Nicholson’s death, or to Caroline’s.
In 2014, that’s three years after Susan died, a public inquiry found that Cassandra Hasanovic had been failed by the same police force.
[Clip: News report about Cassandra Hasanovic’s death]
Cassandra was dragged from her car as she fled to a women's refuge, and stabbed and killed in the road by her estranged husband in front of her children. She’d made numerous reports to police about his violence and threats.
[Clip: Cassandra Hasanovic’s mother speaking about her daughter]
I know we’re shunting back and forth in time a bit here, but let's set it out: Cassandra was murdered in 2008, two years after Caroline Devlin died. So... 2006 Caroline Devlin, 2008 Cassandra Hasanovic, 2011 Susan Nicholson, a public inquiry that confirmed police failed Cassandra reported in 2014.
And then, in 2016…
[Clip: News report about Shana Grice’s death]
Shana had reported her ex-boyfriend Michael Lane to police five times for stalking and harassing her. But instead of investigating properly, an officer, PC Godfrey, gave her a warning for wasting police time. And then he fined her £90. Shortly afterwards, Michael Lane broke into Shana’s home and slit her throat.
At his misconduct hearing, PC Godfrey defended his decision not to take Shana’s reports seriously. And the misconduct tribunal... agreed with him. But interestingly a judge later said the police had “jumped to conclusions” and they'd “stereotyped” Shana, because they could not conceive of a situation where a woman in a relationship could also be abused by her partner.
A coroner has just refused Shana’s parents a full, Article 2 inquest into her death – that’s the kind of inquest which gets convened when the state – that means, here, the police – had knowledge of the danger someone was living in – and that meant they had a positive duty to protect their life.
So, to sum up, what did these four deaths all have in common? Sussex Police.
From the moment of Caroline Devlin’s death in 2006 to Shana’s, a decade later, there are repeated failures on the part of this particular police force where victims of domestic abuse are killed by their partners, and the warning signs are ignored...
Susan Nicholson was very far from a one-off.
But instead of being willing to do an on the record interview, which we offered before Christmas – and despite a follow up email to that press officer whose much-more-important meeting I clearly interrupted – plus a Right of Reply email sent last week – by the time I recorded this podcast I’d heard nothing back.
In the last two episodes you’ve heard me go through what is going wrong: ingrained stereotypes that lead the authorities to dismiss domestic abuse deaths far quicker than they should.
The rebuffing – and undermining – of victims’ families.
A reflexive police defensiveness and a refusal to question their own judgments, let alone answer our questions.
I had to keep reminding myself that my frustration with Sussex Police was just a drop in the ocean compared to what Mr and Mrs Skelton had endured.
In the four years after Susan’s death, the Skeltons managed to secure one internal police review, and three separate complaints against the police investigated by the IPCC – that’s the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the body which oversees police conduct (it’s since been abolished and relaunched as the Independent Office for Police Conduct).
The Skeltons’ complaints all expressed their dismay at police failings to apply sufficient – well any? – professional curiosity to the risks that Robert Trigg had posed.
Remember: all this time, Robert Trigg was still free.
By 2015, five years after Susan’s death, all three IPCC reports had cleared the police of any wrongdoing in their approach to Susan’s death.
And the Skeltons were now in their early 80s.
Peter, he told me, has trouble sleeping.
They’re understated people, but it’s clear from what they tell me that the stress they endured was huge.
Peter Skelton: You know, I never sleep all the way through the night now, I always seem to wake up after about three or four hours. Because I think you’ve got such a lot on your mind that –
Elizabeth Skelton: You’re very bad at sleeping –
Peter: I used to be a good sleeper at one time but now I’m a very bad sleeper.
Elizabeth: I’ll wake up at about three or four o'clock in the morning and see he’s up here. You couldn’t say, well we’ll finish at that, you couldn't. You had to carry on because we knew what we were told was not true. They misled us.
Peter: They certainly did mislead us. But, you know, really it’s taken most of our retirement to fight this case isn’t it?
Elizabeth: No holiday.
Peter: The only reason we’ve not been on holiday is because of this case mainly. And I suppose in a way it’s been a good thing because then we’ve got the money to fight the case.
Elizabeth: And apart from that you can’t enjoy a holiday when you’ve got that in the back of your mind. How can you go off on a holiday, you can’t.
But with every response they got to their complaints, they were also given a new piece of information.
And it had begun to feel like something more sinister than simply a poor initial investigation. The Skeltons felt like the police were doubling down. Closing ranks.
And again, I’m sorry to labour this point, but Robert Trigg was still free.
Still free despite the fact that the Skeltons had learned, for instance, that one officer at the scene of Susan’s death, PC Adams, had been seriously concerned that Robert Trigg had not been arrested. And despite the fact that the Senior Investigating Officer had known full well of his previous violence against Susan – and indeed, of a previous girlfriend’s similar death.
Elizabeth: I think it was all planned to be honest putting it that way.
Louise: Tell me what you mean?
Elizabeth: I think that the whole thing was already planned. Because even in the police re-investigation reports and in the third police reinvestigation reports, we've got them all here, there was one thing she said, she forgot to tell the coroner in December 2011, Robert Trigg’s history of violence. And in the last page of that third report it said, "the police did nothing wrong due to the fact that Michael Trigg was already in Susan's flat" – that’s the brother of Robert Trigg – "was already in Susan's flat when the police arrived". Yet, Michael Trigg, at the coroner's inquest in 2011, stated that when he got to Susan's flat it was all cordoned off and he couldn't get in.
So, they kept complaining. But their final plea to the IPCC got rejected. No more official questions were going to be put to Sussex Police.
You might well feel at this point that you’d reached the end of the road.
Not the Skeltons.
They got themselves a lawyer….
Louise: How much did it cost you?
Peter: Well, probably over £10,000. Probably £12,000, you know, rough guess but at least £10,000. But the police, whenever they were doing their thing, they got paid by the taxpayer. It was only us that it was costing us, costing money.
Louise: And that was to pay the solicitor, the barrister, the forensic pathologist?
Peter: Yes, that’s right.
Elizabeth: High court and everything...
And straightaway, it changes everything.
Peter: So then we've gone to Hannah Bennett, a solicitor, we told her the story. We, you know, we believe the coroner has come up with the wrong decision. So she got on to a barrister, Matthew Farmer, and he looked into the case and he said "this is the worst case in my 29 years, I've never come across a case like this". He said the police investigation was atrocious.
Elizabeth: And the first thing he did was got Dr Carey...
On the advice of their barrister, the Skeltons immediately commission their own Home Office accredited forensic pathologist and he uncovers error after error.
The sofa was too small for two people to sleep on, making Susan’s accidental suffocation inherently unlikely, he said.
His report stated that “accidental airway obstruction must be the least likely possibility in this case.”
He also said: “In terms of the proposed positions on the sofa, (that’s Trigg and Susan), this is not a matter of expert evidence but as a matter of common sense there must have been very limited space for two individuals to lie adjacent to one another on the sofa in the manner proposed.”
After five years of stonewalling, within a year of the Susan’s parents bringing in their own lawyer, and paying out of their own life savings for an expert pathologist, the police, finally… agree to start a new investigation.
Peter: So they were pushed into investigating Sue’s death. You know it was only because of Matthew Farmer, the barrister.
And not just into Susan’s death, but into Caroline’s too.
And from that point on, things start, finally, to move…
[Clip: News report on Robert Trigg being found guilty of Caroline Devlin’s manslaughter and Susan Nicholson’s murder]
In 2017, Robert Trigg was convicted and sentenced for the murder of Susan Nicholson. He was also found guilty of the manslaughter of Caroline Devlin.
He had killed them both, and the Skeltons had been proved right.
During the trial, Elizabeth Skelton suffered a heart attack.
Elizabeth: So I went to the hospital after I came home from bridge, and they kept me in and they said I’d had a mild heart attack. It just shows…
Peter: It was probably the worry of all this going on.
Elizabeth: It was yeah because you never stop...
By the time of Trigg’s conviction, it had been six years of grief and struggle.
The Skeltons are an incredible couple. The failings they encountered are failings I am starting to see in cases cropping up all over the country.
Not least in one fascinating case happening right now.
And I want to tell you about this – because it was a weird coincidence that publicity about the Skeltons and their success in bringing Robert Trigg to justice hit the news, at the same time as Emily Whelan’s family were shouting to be heard.
Caramella Brennan: Whatever happened that morning... I can't prove what happened that morning. And because of what happened to Emily's body, I'll never be able to prove what happened that morning.
But how the family of the lady who was with Robert Trigg, that couldn't let it go and they fought and they fought and they fought. Good for them. Absolutely. I could kiss them. And I’m so intrigued to know how, after all that time, they found the evidence that put this man away.
This is Caramella Brennan.
As you can probably tell from her accent, we’re in Yorkshire now. Ilkley to be precise.
Claudia, who’s helping me with this project, is visiting Caramella to find out more about her daughter, Emily.
[Clip: Claudia and Caramella greeting each other]
It’s early January, it’s freezing, and Caramella lives in a flat that’s right on the edge of a snow-covered moor. Lockdown is making the interview tricky...
[Clip: Claudia and Caramella trying to work out distancing]
...but Caramella wants her story – her daughter’s story – to be told.
Like the Skeltons, and like Katie Wilding’s mum, Caramella and her family have been fighting for answers for years. They’ve been fighting to establish what happened to their daughter Emily, who died in November 2016.
Only… Emily’s story is different from the others you’ll hear in this podcast series. It’s one I’ve spoken about repeatedly with my editor, wrestling over how to include it – whether even we should include it.
But to be clear now: we’re not telling you this story because we think that Emily’s death is a hidden homicide. The reason I believe it’s important we tell you about what happened after she died is because it shows so graphically what can go wrong when a family’s concerns aren’t listened to.
It’s a complicated story, involving Jane Monckton Smith, the expert independent investigator. She convinced the police to look in more detail at the circumstances of Emily’s death. And because of a really harrowing twist of fate, those police investigations came too late to be of any use.
Claudia: We’ve kind of spoken about it already but can you tell me a little bit about what Emily was like growing up?
Caramella: Emily was so funny. She had the best sense of humour, even when she was a toddler. She'd just look at you with her big cheeks and her massive blue eyes and just make you laugh. When she started to laugh, she'd laugh until she cried. And that carried on all the way through her life. Once she started laughing there were just no, she'd laugh until there were tears rolling down her face.
When she were a little kid, she were perfect. Absolutely perfect. Till she got in her teens, she went a bit skew whiff. But a lot of teenagers do. She fell pregnant when she were 16.
You can hear the admiration in her voice when Caramella talks about her daughter.
Caramella: She’d gone to university. She got a degree. She was so proud of herself. We were so proud of her because she had had a bit of bother in her teens. But she just turned everything around.
In 2015 Emily married and soon had another baby.
Claudia: What was she like as a mum?
Caramella: She was such a good mum, such a good mum. I'm so proud of her. She were really, really a good mum. I've got videos still of her with her second boy, she only had such a short time with him, but I've got one video in particular and she's got him on her knee.
And she’s singing, "I’ve got a dream… I’ve got a dream." Yeah, it's lovely.
What happened to Emily after her death is complex and upsetting.
It demonstrates the struggles that families must go through to be heard in a system that doesn’t seem to pay attention.
It underlines how crucial securing a scene and collecting evidence is as soon as possible. Just in case. Because with some evidence... once it’s gone, it’s gone.
And to understand, we have to go back to November 2016.
It’s early in the morning, and Emily is found by someone known to her – and we aren’t naming this person for legal reasons. She was found unresponsive and blue in the face. Her upper body was partially stuck in a gap down the side of the bed, and her neck was extended backwards. An ambulance was called and she was rushed to hospital.
Caramella: When I walked I were just absolutely shocked. Emily had been intubated... Emily had epilepsy, but she'd lived with it, well, from being about eight year old when she were diagnosed with having epilepsy. And when I went into the room, it was just as the doctor was opening Emily's eyelids and shining the light into her eyes and I purposefully lent over and looked and there were absolutely no response. I knew right there and then, my daughter were gone. I knew she were.
Emily dies in the early hours of the next day. She was 25 years old and straight away, Emily’s family are suspicious about her death.
They allege that someone known to Emily was isolating and controlling her. It’s evident from Emily’s diaries that she had started struggling with her mental health. And to her family, she seemed to have become insecure and withdrawn.
By this point, Caramella had learned that on the day Emily was rushed to hospital, she was getting ready to move out – leave home. She’d gone to her daughter's flat before she went to the hospital thinking that she’d still be there and she’d seen her daughter’s stuff packed up in boxes around that flat – seen some of the children’s furniture, even, had been taken down.
For Caramella and the rest of Emily’s family, grieving that sudden loss of their daughter and their loved one, alarm bells were ringing.
And there was worse to come.
After Emily dies, Caramella tries desperately to raise her concerns again and again with the coroner’s office. At first, the coroner’s officer, John Bracewell, seems to take her suspicions seriously – the family is asked to put together a timeline of events and they begin raking over Emily’s diaries and texts. But when the initial post mortem comes back… none of their concerns appear to have been taken on board.
So they keep pushing. They call for a second, forensic post mortem and a police investigation. By this point Caramella says she is sometimes calling the coroner’s office multiple times a day. She meets John Bracewell at Otley police station to discuss her concerns in person. But nothing seems to happen.
She takes matters into her own hands and directly contacts the police. A few weeks later when she calls for an update… she’s told that John Bracewell, the coroner’s officer, had declined police involvement.
And during this period, without the family’s knowledge, Emily’s body is shifted from one mortuary to another. But as they later find out, in both mortuaries it is only stored in a fridge – it’s never frozen. For months.
10 months, to be exact.
But let’s rewind a bit. Because Emily’s family only finds this out after Jane Monckton Smith gets involved – and finally convinces West Yorkshire police to open an investigation.
Caramella: We'd seen a lady called Dr. Jane Monckton Smith on the TV in a programme. And we sent a message, an email to her. Now I don't do email or social media or any of that. So I had to ask Emily's dad, if he would be willing to send an email to this lady, what did we have to lose? And we needed to find something that were gonna grab this lady's attention because she probably has hundreds of emails every week. And we decided on: "My lovely mummy age 25 and is dead, please help."
It’s an email that Jane, the former police officer and now forensic criminologist, remembers well.
Jane Monckton Smith: It was just heartbreaking because it was almost from the perspective of Emily's children. So it was a very strange email. I absolutely, you know, that was a strange email, but it was its strangeness that attracted me to digging deeper because the grief in that email was palpable. I think Emily’s family felt that everybody had just turned their backs now, everybody felt that there’s nothing to see here, Emily died of an epileptic seizure and we should all just move on.
Jane went to speak to them. She talked a lot with the family about Emily and her life.
And with Jane’s extensive knowledge, her experience of looking at domestic abuse and analysing risk factors, her assessment was that there was a high probability Emily was a subject of coercive control and domestic abuse.
Jane’s report concludes that had Emily not died, she was in danger of coming to further harm. But when I spoke to her, she didn’t stop at that report.
Jane: I had more influence than them in being able to attract the attention of the police. So I was able to say to the police, I'm very concerned. I think that this is a suspicious death and to be fair to the police, they did then decide to start at least exploring what was going on because this is months and months and months down the line.
A police investigation into the circumstances leading up to and including Emily’s death began in the summer of 2017 – nearly 8 months after she died. It was everything the family had been pushing for: after all the knock backs, they were elated.
And as for the coroner’s officer, John Bracewell… well, Caramella asked that he was taken off the case.
Eventually, an individual was arrested and questioned on suspicion of coercive and controlling behaviour. And to the relief of the family, a forensic post mortem was ordered.
It was at this point that her family found out the shocking news that Emily’s body had been left to decompose so badly it was possible nothing useful could be learned.
This is what I mean about the authorities not taking action quickly when a family raises reasonable concerns.
Understandably however, the state of Emily’s body is traumatic information for everyone who loved her. As you can imagine, it continues to affect them to this day. I want to say now that some listeners might find the following descriptions distressing, but Caramella – Emily’s mother – wanted people to know what the family have had to face.
Caramella: I felt like someone had punched me right in the face. I thought where are we gonna go from here? What are we gonna do now?
The only evidence we had was Emily's body. And that were left to decompose. By the time they said, yeah, we're going to do a forensic post-mortem. It was too late. Any chance we had of proving anything had already gone.
I felt robbed. I was angry. I was.... I cried, I screamed, I ranted and raved. It was just all to no avail. What can you do when the evidence has gone away? It’s just gone. It’s lost.
I have no words for how I felt that day when they told me. To read about slippage, putrefaction, mummification, leakage. That's my baby. That's my child that they're talking about. They would’ve known if they’d have done the right thing at the time, they knew we were fighting for a forensic post-mortem. We have been from the initial post-mortem, we even offered to pay for one ourselves.
And it just, I don't know, I don't know what to say. I have no words. We were just flabbergasted.
At that time, the police investigation continues.
But without Emily’s body – and nearly a year after she died – well, there doesn’t seem to be much to go on.
The forensic post mortem is hampered. It concludes that Emily died of a lack of oxygen to the brain after a cardiac arrest. But it can’t determine the underlying cause of that cardiac arrest – and it is unable to completely rule out third party involvement.
And Emily’s family are adamant that the police investigation and their questioning of the person they arrested in relation to coercive control weren’t up to scratch…
Caramella: Is this coercive control? How many people just do not understand it. They just don't get it. So when the police went and asked Emily's friends and stuff, do you think Emily was being coercively controlled? What do they know about coercive control? Even the police don't understand it.
In 2018, police decide that there’s not enough evidence to take a case to the Crown Prosecution Service.
And an inquest in September 2020 gives a narrative verdict. The coroner concludes that the circumstances of Emily’s death were consistent with a seizure during the night and that an extensive police investigation had found no third party involvement.
The family’s trauma over Emily’s body means they felt they had no option but to sue Leeds Hospitals NHS Trust. The hospital trust in turn deny responsibility. (Bradford City Council however, which was responsible for the second mortuary where Emily’s body was held, has apologised and paid damages to the family.)
Caramella: I haven’t had time to grieve my daughter properly. I really haven’t. I've come to terms with the fact that she's gone and I'm never going to see her again, I’m never gonna hug her again. I haven’t had time to grieve her properly because I've been too busy fighting the coroner's office, the police, trying to get someone on board. If it wasn't for Dr. Jane Monckton Smith we'd have got nowhere, no one wanted to listen, and nobody wanted to know. So thank God for her.
Emily’s story is complicated, and it’s one I’ve thought about a lot. It’s clearly very different to most of the other stories you’ve heard in this series, and how we deal with it is something I’ve been discussing with my editor Basia.
Basia: If we go back to the, sort of, official investigation... in this instance there were police investigations and there was an inquest. And of course you can see the family might not have been satisfied with the findings but those things did happen – and the police did rule out third party involvement in her death and they didn’t find enough evidence to pursue charges of coercive control. We are reflecting strong criticism of the coroner and their officer, as well as West Yorkshire Police – when you’ve put this to them, what did they say?
Louise: Yes, we got a statement back. They confirmed that West Yorkshire Police began an investigation in June 2017 after getting a referral highlighting concerns raised by Emily’s family. They tell us that Emily’s death was assessed as not suspicious when she died in November 2016 and they say a further post-mortem in October 2017 confirmed no third party involvement. But, I mean, that’s not quite right. The forensic post-mortem in fact said it was hampered – essentially by the decomposition of her body – and it was unable conclusively to rule out any third party involvement.
Time and time again we have heard from families who are just screaming for someone to act – to forensically examine a scene or a body or the dynamics of a toxic relationship – for police to be professionally curious enough to dig deeper, look harder, question what they’re told.
It all comes back to those three, basic First Responder principles set out in that police handbook I’ve been reading.
A - Assume nothing.
B- Believe nothing.
C - Challenge and check everything.
Emily Whelan’s case is a tough listen. We’re not saying it’s a hidden homicide, but it reveals so much about what hangs in the balance, what the jeopardy is.
I wanted to find out from Jane what could have been done differently...
Jane Monckton Smith: You know, the police weren't called because the paramedics did not see anything that they considered to be suspicious. So Emily was taken to hospital, where she subsequently died. I think there was a lot done to try and keep her alive. But she died. And by that time she's somebody on a bed receiving some kind of resuscitation techniques. So all of that's just disappeared. And nobody has said to any of the doctors, we think this might be suspicious because they didn't think it was suspicious. So there's a whole chain there, where just taking what has been said to you as the truth.
Louise: What could have been done differently in that case to have given a better chance of there being a proper investigation?
Jane: A better chance of a proper investigation would have happened if the police had been called. And if a forensic post-mortem had been ordered immediately…
One of the biggest differences in Emily’s case is she never made any report of domestic abuse to the police, or as far as we can tell, to anyone else.
It should be noted more broadly that only 18 per cent of women report abusive partners to the police. In a conversation we’ve had with Southall Black Sisters, a womens’ rights group, they suggest that that figure is even lower for migrant women and women from Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
By now I’m 6 months into this investigation. I’ve been focused mainly on the police, sending out Freedom of Information requests and talking to sources behind the scenes, to lawyers, to former police officers, and to current politicians who have worked tirelessly on domestic abuse issues – like Louise Hague and Jess Phillips MP.
Jess Phillips: ... and Stephen Timms are currently in a long data battle with the Home Office about that, and they keep saying there isn’t a need for the law changes that we seek. But we say, how can you possibly say there isn’t the need, when you’re literally not counting the data? That’s probably why they don’t want to give it to us because it would prove the need.
Louise: Yeah. It’s really interesting that society counts what it cares about doesn’t it? What I was originally hoping was that there would be some magic way that we could ask a question which went along the lines of this: how many deaths... how many sudden, unexpected deaths in your police force area have you initially investigated as a potential homicide...
Jess Phillips: Only for it to then be dropped...
Louise: ...and then dropped?
Jess Phillips: They will have it because there will be protocols in place – forms, literally, that are for different things. What they will almost certainly say because – similar to what they said to us when we wrote to every police force area and asked them how many people they had had to provide accommodation for who had no recourse to public funds, only West Midlands police gave it to me because I know the woman who does the data – they basically said we will have to go through every file to find this information. So unless they have a specific marker, but it's definitely, I can see that they can come back and say we don’t know the answer to this...
Louise: And it would cost too much...
Jess Phillips: But that is, in and of itself, I often find that “we don’t collect that centrally” to be one of the best answers that I can be given by the government because it's just like, well, why not? So domestic homicides for example they don’t break it down by...
We’d been told it would be difficult to get answers from police force recording systems, because different forces hold information in different ways, in different places. There isn’t, it seems, any consistency. And that’s a big problem.
But we were, of course, pursuing our own data. Counting the number of women in abusive relationships whose sudden death may in fact be a hidden homicide.
The thing is, they’re hidden for a reason – they’re not counted, because they’re not seen.
The data journalist I’m working with, Patricia, sends out the first set of questions to all 46 police forces in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The key things we’ve worked out we want to know are:
How many women who the police know have suffered domestic abuse from their partner or ex have died in sudden or unexplained circumstances?
And we want to know, too: how many of those were investigated as homicides?
That would leave us knowing how many weren't.
Of course, that doesn’t mean those women were killed. But it does start to give us a sense of the scale of deaths, that are happening suddenly, or that remain unexplained, of women who the authorities know are being abused by their partner.
And one day Patricia rang me up. She was excited. There had been a breakthrough.
Louise: Hi Patricia, how are you?
Patricia: I’m well thanks, how are you?
Louise: Yeah, I'm all right. So you've got some news.
Patricia: I have, we had our first full response back from one of our FOI requests.
Louise: And who's that from?
Patricia: From Leicestershire Constabulary. So we’ve had four responses back now, two have been partially responded to, they responded to one question and the other two have been rejected. This one has come back with a full excel sheet of all responses which we didn't think was possible. So it's really exciting news.
Louise: Gosh. Well that is kind of amazing because. In the last couple of days you've been telling us that police forces have been coming back saying absolutely not, we can't tell you this information.
Patricia: I’d completely given up hope to be honest...
Louise: So what does the Leicestershire answers tell us about what’s happening in that force area?
Patricia: To me the numbers are surprisingly low, to me they don’t match up with the national statistics that I’m seeing in terms of homicide victims. So we’ve got from the 1 January 2016 to the 1 December 2020, women who had a police record of domestic abuse who had a sudden unexplained death... there’s only been one.
Louise: Okay, in the past 5 years? Even on the deaths that we know about that are definitely domestic homicides, we would expect a rate of two to three women a week – week in, week out – across the whole country. That Leicestershire would have more than one.
Patricia: Yeah, but this is sudden and unexplained deaths as opposed to homicides. For domestic homicide offences where we know that a woman was killed by her current or former male partner, we’ve got 6 in the past 5 years. And that is sort of in line with the other two police forces who’ve replied to us, obviously it’s hard to make assumptions when the data is three police forces. But we've had, I think...
Louise: Are you pleased, are you pleased that you got this response back?
Patricia:I mean, as pleased as pleased as you can be. It's... the numbers are stark. I find it hard and emotional to look at them. And then as soon as you get a response, you feel happy. And I think I was excited. Like oh my god this actually worked, but then instantly it just opens up more questions. These numbers are low, these numbers are specific to this police force. So how are we going to compare them with everything else that we've got? This is a step in the right direction, but there's so much more to do.
And so we went into Christmas with more than a smidgen of hope. If Leicestershire could do it, why not others?
There were still substantial hurdles to clear: we were a long way off any sort of comprehensive, national answer to the question that kickstarted this whole investigation.
But Leicestershire had given us leverage. We could challenge the police forces who’d said "we can’t" and say, "why not?”
But as we get this breakthrough in our investigation, I get an email about a new case. A case that takes us into uncharted territory...
In the next episode: we get more answers, and I talk to a prosecutor in the Black Country about another case... a landmark charge of manslaughter she brought which could change, really change, how domestic abuse is seen – and prosecuted.
If you’d like to read more about our data investigation, you can go to tortoisemedia.com/hiddenhomicides.
This episode was reported by me, Louise Tickle, with additional reporting by Claudia Williams and Patricia Clarke. It was produced by Matt Russell. The editor was Basia Cummings, with original music by Tom Kinsella.
If you’ve been affected by anything in this podcast, you can contact the charity Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse; the address is www.aafda.org.uk
Photo of Emily Whelan courtesy of Caramella Brennan.