A grief stifled by delay

Post-mortems/ bodies held for months
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The Independent Online
"I FELT as though I was in a box with no opening. I couldn't make any decisions at a time when I was desperate to do something. Until they released the body, I was in limbo."

Lin Pearman - whose daughter, Natalie, 16, died at the hands of a strangler after a tragic descent into drugs and prostitution - stayed in her private limbo for five months.

Not only did Mrs Pearman have to overcome the loss of Natalie as a daughter - the teenager ran away from her Norfolk home in 1991 - and the appalling way in which she died, she also had to contend with the thought of the murdered girl lying in a refrigerated drawer in a mortuary night after night.

The five-month delay was caused by the failure to capture Natalie's killer and the convention that a single post-mortem examination is not usually enough in a murder case. When a suspect is arrested, he or she usually insists on another autopsy, so victims remain in storage for months, sometimes years.

"Natalie was found in the early hours of 20 November, 1992, on the Ringland Hill, outside Norwich," Mrs Pearman said. "It was a horrendous shock. You feel so helpless because it is a situation which you have never come across before.

"They held the [opening] inquest straight away, but we had to wait four months before they held the second one. Then they said the body would be released in three to four weeks. While I was waiting, I felt as if I was hitting my head against a brick wall. I couldn't make any decisions."

The helplessness of Mrs Pearman and scores like her is troubling pathologists so much that the British Medical Association is planning to write to Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, and ask him to introduce a scheme in which a second, independent autopsy can be carried out for the use of suspects' lawyers after an arrest is made. Such a move would free bodies for burial within days or weeks.

Forensic pathologist Dr David Pickersgill, a Norfolk GP and chairman of the BMA's forensic sub-committee, is among those calling for a change.

"We want to try to ease the burden for families of murder victims while recognising the needs of the accused," he said. "The problem is not just in cases where no one is charged, but also in cases where several people are charged and they all want their own post-mortem examinations carried out.

"While one can understand that someone might want their own pathologist, it is unusual for anything to emerge in a subsequent post-mortem examination that did not emerge in the first. Yet the long delays increase the grief of the bereaved family."

Next week, the body of pensioner James Alexander, who was found murdered at his flat in Hampstead, north London, 22 months ago, will finally be released for burial. Owen Davies, an English teacher, was charged with the murder almost six months ago. His solicitors agreed to the move after being given a three-week deadline by the St Pancras coroner.

Only last week, Edwin Wilson, from Burton Fleming, north Humberside, buried his 66-year-old wife Margaret - who had been murdered - after a four- month delay.

After the funeral, Mr Wilson said: "It would have helped us quite a lot if we could have buried her sooner. It was like a waiting game. They were waiting in case they caught someone. It didn't stop us grieving though. We have been grieving for her ever since it happened."

Dr John Burton, coroner for Hammersmith and Fulham, west London, and also a member of the BMA forensic sub-committee, said: "One problem about releasing the body before an arrest is made, is that you are signalling to the assailant that the police are not on to them. A second post-mortem examination would not solve all the problems, but it would be better than nothing."

For Mrs Pearman, her daughter's funeral was a way of coming to terms with death: "Now that Natalie has a grave, there is somewhere I can go to grieve."