Day 2 Gaia Pope Sutherland’s Inquest

Gaia’s full inquest hearing was opened yesterday with a jury of thirteen sworn in to assist the Senior Coroner for Dorset, Rachael Griffin. The Coroner introduced in broad terms what happened to Gaia, I’m not sure anyone who has followed the pre-inquest review hearings would have necessarily learnt anything knew, but there’s coverage from Steven Morris in the Guardian here.

Today’s hearing started late, court wasn’t due to sit until 10:15am as the weekly fire alarm test is at 10:10 on a Wednesday. As it happened it was 10:55 before they were brought into court due to a number of house keeping matters.

The court was shown a video pen portrait prepared by Gaia’s family first thing; you can watch it here:

In the video Gaia’s aunt, Talia, recalls how following Gaia reporting she’d been raped the previous year, aged just 16, her physical and mental health declined and she was diagnosed with PTSD.

After she shared that she had been raped, Gaia’s deteriorating physical and mental health changed her life. At times our girl would seem to disappear, lost in fear and self doubt. But she fought bravely to return to us and her inner light always shone through the clouds. Gaia also kept hold of her dreams. She hoped to have a big family and host Christmases in the Dorset cottage she dreamed of, surrounded by her family and friends.

If you’d like to learn more about Gaia you can read a series of blog posts I wrote following conversations with her family back in 2020 here.

After the video portrait the first evidence the jury heard was the coroner admitting the statement of a pathology technician, Francis Ciardini, confirming a photo provided of Gaia’s tattoo matched a tattoo on the body in the mortuary, confirming and identifying Gaia.

There were just two live witnesses today, Sarah Tarrant-Wooding and Martin Hall.

First the court heard from Sarah Tarrant-Wooding who gave evidence in respect of toxicology evidence. She is a Consultant Forensic Toxicologist, which means she analyses bodily fluids for the presence of alcohol, drugs and poison. She conducted tests on a blood sample collected from Gaia’s body at post mortem on 19 November 2017 (Gaia went missing on 7 November and her body was recovered on the 18th November 2017).

Dorset Police had asked her to run three types of tests, for ‘drugs of abuse’, prescription medication, and alcohol. Counsel to the inquest, Sarah Clarke, explored how many drugs were covered under the ‘drugs of abuse’ testing and Mrs Tarrant-Wooding confirmed they tested for in excess of 50 substances. She also explained a number of changes that can happen after death, that can influence the results and reliability of such testing.

The results of the testing conducted on Gaia’s blood revealed the presence of three prescription medications prescribed for her epilepsy. The concentration of lamotrigine was “broadly consistent with her daily dose”, when counsel explored this in more detail and asked Mrs Tarrant-Wooding whether it could assist in determining how long after taking it, Gaia died, she responded:

STW: Not really because would be expecting her to take it daily, once taking daily would expect established on therapeutic concentration which is what we see here. If hadn’t been taken for number weeks wouldn’t be able to see drug, but wouldn’t be able to say whether was taken that day or previous day

SC: what about several days?

STW: yes, would tend to suggest has been taken in last several days, by comparing her dose and data… if not taken for several days would expect a much lower concentration.

Asked about a second epilepsy drug, clobazam, Mrs Tarrant-Wodding explained Gaia was taking it as a secondary drug for her epilepsy. Gaia took it in a lower dose, less frequently, and it is also a benzodiazepine, which means it is unstable. That means it is more susceptible to break down and changes after death so measured concentrations in post mortem bloods may not reflect the true concentration circulating at the time of Gaia’s death, and therefore would be harder to ascertain any timings.

On questioning by counsel, and clarification by the coroner, Mrs Tarrant-Wooding confirmed that she felt on the balance of probabilities that Gaia could have taken clobazam the day before her death, or two days before her death, but she couldn’t answer any further back from that with certainty.

The court heard that this indicated Gaia was “compliant with her medication”. Compliance always seems odd phraseology to me, I’m sure no blame is intended, but I can’t help feel there is a shadow of patient blame to the question.

A discussion followed about a further epilepsy drug, carbamazepine, which was not detected in Gaia’s post mortem bloods. Counsel to the inquest, Ms Clarke asked Mrs Tarrant-Wooding what this indicated:

STW: It suggests she hadn’t taken it… or there was no carbamazepine circulating in her body at the time of death… would tend to suggest she’d not taken it for a couple of days before her death

SC: are you able to say whether she may have taken it earlier than a couple days before her death?

STW: I would expect to still see low concentration… it wasn’t even trying to be present, no evidence to suggest she’s taken it recently

SC: I know I’m trying to pin you down, and you’ve said it’s not an exact science, but can you help the jury with timespan of when Gaia may have taken the drug and her sad death… timespan when would expect it to be detectable?

STW: I don’t think I can, each individual is different… each person has a different elimination rate… combining those two facts, couldn’t tell you on balance of probability when she last took it, could say she was not taking it at the time of her death

SC: presumably you can’t say if she’s taken it?

STW: there is no evidence to suggest she has digested carbamazepine

SC: if she was prescribed it to take on a daily basis, what does the fact it was not detected at all tell us about whether she was compliant with that?

STW: would tend to suggest she was non-compliant with prescribed carbamazepine

What surprised me was that the jury had no questions about this; given we know that Gaia was last seen alive on 7 November, and her post mortem wasn’t conducted until 19 November, I’d have been wanting to ask questions about how reliable the blood tests could possibly be given we don’t yet know when she died. No-one asked.

We later heard that there was an extremely low level of diazepam in Gaia’s blood stream, no indication of alcohol, and despite testing for over 50 drugs of abuse, the only indication that came back positive was THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) which is a component of cannabis. Mrs Tarrant-Wooding wasn’t able to say whether the level indicated was high, medium or low, explaining that what would be high for one user, wouldn’t for another, she’d seen a lot higher and a lot lower incases but she felt it “supports recent active use”. On probing from Ms Clarke she stated she thought “given the concentration of THC suggested, would suggest recent active use, so would expect her to be experiencing the effects of cannabis at that time”.

She also highlighted a range of recent anecdotal, and international evidence, that is studying the effect of cannabis and its chemical compounds on people with epilepsy and stated that “some people are self treating epilepsy or seizures by taking cannabis oil…. its still being investigated and researched”.

The Coroner revisited some of this evidence, and explored limitations of post mortem samples and redistribution. The Coroner summarised for the jury:

C: so on the balance of probabilities can the jury rely on these results and the evidence you’ve given in respect of Gaia’s use?

STW: its a representation of the situation at the time of her death, but must consider may not be accurate because of post mortem changes… but good indication of substances in her body and concentration

C: what the jury can take on the balance of probabilities is Gaia was compliant with two out of three prescribed medications for epilepsy?

STW: yes she was compliant with lamotrigine and clobazam

C: Gaia had used cannabis prior to her death at some point?

STW: yes that’s correct

C: it’s likely, on the balance of probabilities, had used epilepsy medication and cannabis in the days leading up to her death?

STW: yes that’s correct

C: and likely to be within 3 days of her death?

STW: yes, cannabis more recent to death, but prescribed drugs in concentration with variation, I’d say yes 2 to 3 days

C: she’d not used alcohol prior to her death?

STW: correct

C: she’d not used any other drugs of abuse, heroine, cocaine, no evidence of that at all?

STW: no evidence of any drugs of abuse other than cannabis

Interesting use of language and examples here again, compliance, heroine, cocaine.

Court was then adjourned for a short break and Mrs Tarrant-Wooding went to explore the interaction between the different drugs that Gaia had in her system. On return to court she explained some of the well documented aspects of cannabis having (positive) effects on seizure activity, finishing up:

STW: Quite widespread that patients will use cannabis to ease seizure activity

C: that’s not approved or prescribed use, but used anecdotally by sufferers

STW: yes… wide number of epilepsy sufferers do recognise cannabis can assist their symptoms. CBD within cannabis.… depending on type, different amount of THC and CBD, CBD it is well recognised can have anti convulsant activity, are approved medicines which contain CBD for treatment of epilepsy [fuller answer]

C: there was no CBD found in Gaia’s blood?

STW: it was not looked for in this case, because it did not have a psychoactive activity

C: could cannabis be used for approved medicines?

STW: no, because non are approved

C: I know it’s a strong word to use, but this is illicit cannabis use?

STW: yes

The only other interested person’s to ask questions were Ms Beatrice Collier on behalf of Dorset Police and Ms Caoilfhionn Gallagher for Gaia’s maternal family. Ms Collier tried to press Mrs Tarrant-Wooding on the timing in which Gaia was likely to have taken cannabis but she held firm and said “given concentration would say in 12 hours before” but she could not be more precise.

Ms Gallagher confirmed what had been said about Gaia’s compliance with two of her epilepsy medications and Mrs Tarrant-Wooding clarified her comments about therapeutic levels. Attention then returned to cannabis:

CG: very helpful, thank you very much. I’ve a number of short questions in relation to cannabis, thank you for the indications you’ve given after the break in answer to the coroner’s questions. You indicated earlier that it is well documented may be self-medication using cannabis for epileptic seizures, is it possible for you to say from toxicology results you have, whether Gaia had used cannabis oil for example?

STW: not really. Cannabis oil would tend to lead to higher concentrations of THC, because higher concentration than resin and herbal… if it was oil it could have led to higher concentration, but then would be more than 12 hours earlier it was taken, because that would allow to drop off… can’t rule it out

C: to clarify it could be either, could be cannabis oil or could be a joint?

STW: I couldn’t rule out either one from the results alone

CG: madam, that’s precisely where I was going. You can’t say what form the cannabis was ingested or taken?

STW: that’s correct

CG: if was cannabis oil would lead to higher concentrations, and could indicate was taken at earlier stage and had dropped?

STW: if oil would expect higher concentration immediately after use, and longer to drop

CG: so could mean varies timeframe of when taken?

STW: yes, THC still eliminates at same rate but if starting at higher level would take longer to drop

CG: you referred earlier to Coroner about approved medicines with CBD… you didn’t look for it, because there are no THC approved medicines?

STW: not at the moment, although there are a number of research studies

CG: which is precisely where I’m going next, the coroner said ‘its a strong word to use but this is illicit cannabis use’ if the jury were to take that to mean it was street version of the drug, that would be quite wrong wouldn’t it Your evidence is not in answering yes to that, that toxicology results suggest she was using skunk, or cannabis smoked, simply illicit in that THC medication is not currently recognised in England & Wales?

STW: yes

C: Can I perhaps put it in another way then, it is illegal, its not suggesting was street use

CG: yes, just wanted to clear that up for the jury

STW: yes, can I be clear, this refers to this country… not same in all countries

The conversation continued about ongoing research studies, before the Coroner urged caution because “what happens outside this country is not within the jury’s remit, its what happens here in England and Wales which is in our jurisdiction”. At this point court adjourned for lunch.

On return from lunch Gaia’s family had left the court room because they didn’t want to be present to hear from the next witness, Mr Martin Hall. I can’t say I blame them. Mr Hall is now retired, but at the time of providing a report to the inquest he was the Head of the Division of Parasites and Vectors at the Natural History Museum and his personal focus was on insects of medical, veterinary or forensic importance.

Mr Hall is a research entomologist, entomology being the study of insects, he’d brought a couple of blow flies along with him to the show the jury, although the coroner decided that wasn’t necessary. Mr Hall didn’t like the term expert, but considered himself a specialist, and clearly had a wealth of knowledge. He’d been approached by the coroner’s office in February 2018, and asked to look at the insect evidence collected, to see if he could help narrow down the time of Gaia’s death.

I’ll spare you a lot of details, but try to provide an overview. At Gaia’s post mortem a number of samples of fly larvae (eggs… maggots) were taken from Gaia’s body and Mr Hall analysed these, and looked at photos taken at post mortem, in an attempt to narrow down Gaia’s time of death. Blow flies are attracted to carrion, dead bodies, animal or human, to lay their eggs, by collecting their larvae it’s possible to analyse how developed they are, and therefore work backwards to when they were first attracted to the body, and in turn help narrow the time of Gaia’s death.

SC: are you able to say on balance of probabilities whether these blow flies would arrive at Gaia’s body before or after her death?

MH: they may well arrive before, but they’d lay their eggs after death

SC: your view is they would lay eggs after death?

MH: yes

SC: in terms of situation of body, where it was, we know Gaia’s body was in the open air, albeit concealed under gorse bushes… in the open air and unclothed, is that relevant to how quickly blow flies might arrive?

MH: yes it is, if body was wrapped in some way, in plastic sheet or carpet or blanket or something then the odours of decomposition, release would be slowed and little more difficult for flies to find body in wrappings, may arrive at scene but slow to find body; but in this case those were not considerations.

Mr Hall then provided an overview of the life cycle of blow fly larvae, they go through three stages of development, shedding their skin twice, which means that it is relatively easy to identify what age they are and work backwards to when they were laid, providing you have a good microsope!

There was much discussion about the impact of the climate, particularly temperature on the larvae’s development. Larvae can be aged once you know the temperature, using a measure of degrees by hours accumulated.

Mr Hall would have ideally visited the scene himself, taken his own samples, placed an instrument to measure the temperature, attended the post mortem, but given he was consulted months after the event he wasn’t able to do that and instead used local weather data and modelled data from the Met Office.

I’ll not recount all of the questioning and information shared in court, just where we eventually reached in relation to Gaia’s time of death, calculated via the ageing/laying of larvae, with questioning from Ms Gallagher:

CG: in your first report you gave the range as 8th to 10th November, is it your view still correct approach is to focus on that range, albeit 9th is the most likely date, or is it your evidence today that 10 November should be ruled out?

MH: my view is still to stick with the range, it’s much more likely… numerous factors where is unknowns, temperature being one of them, also possibility larvae could have been not collected which might have been little older than what I did examine….

C: can I clarify this because I’m totally confused. In respect, we’ve been talking a lot about your view in the report, in your report, from your opinion, was that based on the Hurn data, the model data or the Swanage data?

MH: based on the Hurn data

C: right, your view was could develop any time between 8 and 10th ?

MH: correct, most likely the 9th

C: You’ve told the jury today the best data is the modelled data

MH: yes

C: so actually in respect of likely period, on basis of model data is that between 7 and 9th ?

MH: model data is between the 7th and the 10th, but so early on 10th is unlikely

C: that’s what I want to be clear about; your opinion in report is based on Hurn date, you were asked questions today on best data, model data, which is why narrows down to dusk on 9th

MH: yes, but the differences between modelled and Hurn are very small, I would rather go with still keeping the slightly wider range, 8th, 9th and 10th but more likely most likely on 9th. When I say the modelled data is the best, its the best modelled data, but I cant say hand on heart, I’m not a meteorologist, I could not say for sure, the modelled data is a model. I think would be rash of me to rule out the estimates that I have based on the data I’ve been given.

C: even though the graphs you’ve got on modelled data say 7th ?

MH: you can already see modelled data suggested potential one end when Gaia was clearly still alive, so you shouldn’t put as…. there’s potential for error in the system, range 8 to 10th I’m very confident with, 9th most likely, very confident with that, would not like to just rule out a day

C: so you’re now saying the range is from just before 4pm when Gaia was last seen alive, on 7th through to 12 noon on the 10th ?

MH: no I’m not saying that, because what I said before, when she was last seen alive she wasn’t at the place she was recovered

C: yes, she was definitely alive then, so her death must definitely have occurred between that time and 12 noon on the 10th ?

MH: yes 12 noon on the 10th

C: that’s one point of her being alive. In relation to the development of larvae, that’s sometime between the 10am on 8th through to 12 noon on the 10th ?

MH: yes good estimate… likely estimated when flies found body of deceased and laid their eggs

C: on balance of probabilities, more likely than not 50.000001% they laid their eggs on the 9th ?

MH: yes, there’s a bell shaped curve, so more likely on the 9th

The jury then had a few questions for Mr Hall, which he answered and explained, and court adjourned for the day at 17:15

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