New inquest ordered into Whitear heroin death

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The Independent Online

A new inquest has been ordered into the death of a 21-year-old heroin addict - who featured in a shocking anti-drugs campaign - following a flawed investigation by a coroner and police.

The family of Rachel Whitear yesterday argued at the High Court in London that there had been a failure to carry out a "full, fair and fearless" inquiry into the young woman's death.

Ms Whitear's death in a rented room in Exmouth, Devon, in May 2000 attracted worldwide attention after photographs of the dead student were published. The pictures of her bloated body, bent double alongside a discarded heroin syringe, are among the best-known and most shocking anti-drug images of recent times.

But doubt was cast on the cause of death when the then Exeter and Greater Devon coroner, Richard Van Oppen, said he was certain she had not died of an overdose because the level of heroin in her blood was too low and recorded an open verdict, ruling that the cause of death was "unascertained".

A fresh police inquiry was ordered after complaints from Ms Whitear's mother and stepfather that the coroner's office and Devon and Cornwall Police had failed to properly investigate the case. No post-mortem examination had been carried out before the inquest - a decision that was criticised yesterday by the High Court. For a time, suspicion centred on Rachel's drug-addict former boyfriend, Luke Fitzgerald, who initially lied to police about when he had last seen her.

He was arrested on suspicion of manslaughter, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided there was insufficient evidence to bring charges. The High Court yesterday backed a move by Wiltshire Police for a court order overturning the original inquest verdict so that a fresh hearing could establish a cause of death.

The second police investigation, which included exhuming the body of Ms Whitear, indicated that the student died from a heroin overdose. New toxicology tests are understood to have found higher levels of heroin than originally detected.

Forensic experts believe the fatal overdose occurred because Ms Whitear had stopped taking drugs in the weeks before her death, which resulted in her tolerance level to heroin being greatly reduced. The police also concluded that there was no evidence of foul play. Despite the new evidence, the Exeter and Greater Devon district coroner Dr Elizabeth Earland last year controversially decided against reopening the case. This surprise decision was challenged by the police, with the support of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, at the High Court yesterday.

Following the decision to order a new inquest, Ms Whitear's mother and stepfather, Pauline and Mick Holcroft, of Ledbury, Herefordshire, said: "We are most heartened by today's judgment and feel that this is a fair and just result for Rachel and ourselves.

"Even from the very day that Rachel's body was discovered, we were never entirely happy that everything possible was being done to try and discover exactly why and how she had died.

"There was always a nagging suspicion that her death had been regarded as just one more inconsequential drugs statistic and that she was a bit of a nuisance." Lord Justice Maurice Kay, giving the reasons for the court's decision, said: "I am entirely satisfied that the coroner erred by not ensuring that a further toxicology test and a post-mortem were carried out before the release of the body for burial."

He said that "there is a clear public interest in ordering a new inquest".

The judge added: "At the moment, a tragic death which... continues to attract extensive public interest has received the most inconclusive findings from an inadequate inquest."

Chief Superintendent Paul Howlett of Wiltshire Police, who led the new investigation, said he was delighted with the ruling, adding: "I believe that the new inquest will emphasise important information in a public forum about the obvious dangers of drug abuse and the drug culture."

Mr and Mrs Holcroft had released graphic pictures of Ms Whitear's death to warn teenagers of the dangers of the drug.