Further to the the Kate Fitzgerald inquest last week which recorded a verdict of death by suicide.
Kate’s parents, Tom and Sally Fitzgerald write:
It is our view that the suicide verdict of June 6 at the Coroner’s court was tragically wrong.
After more than 21 months of waiting we failed to get a hearing at the inquest, and we failed to get closure. We want to put some of the details our case into the public domain so that this does not happen to other families.
There were five main problems with the inquest
1. Too much Garda intervention turned an inquest into a trial
2. The Family was not allowed to give input.
3. There was virtually no investigation at the scene of death.
4. The pathologists were allowed to change the manner and cause of death on the stand 21 months after the death
5. Hyoid bone evidence was underplayed by both Cassidy and the coroner
6. The jury was unduly influenced by the views expressed by the Coroner
A Wall of Blue
Anything but a suicide verdict would have been shocking given the amount of state funds that were committed to getting a suicide verdict for Kate Fitzgerald. There were 3 uniformed Gardaí shepherded by their uniformed sergeant for the duration of the inquest. There was Detective Superintendent Gabriel O’Gara, Detective Sergeant John Doyle, Detective Mark Looby, and another unknown detective. There were also two people from the Garda Ombudsman’s office in the audience.
The Gardai were represented by a barrister with either one or two solicitors (depending on the day). The Garda barrister spoke in a low voice away from the microphone such that she could not be heard by the audience or the family. Mr Fitzgerald asked the registrar repeatedly on all three days of the inquest for the barrister to speak up so the family could hear her. She made no effort to do so. This made it extremely difficult to know what exactly she was trying to do with the evidence.
Evidence given at the inquest showed that of the five people on duty at the scene, only one could say with any certainty that he saw a ligature there. Two firemen/paramedics first to the scene around 1:30 or so could recall no ligature there. A third paramedic who arrived at 1:38 PM said he say ligature marks, but no ligature.
The main investigating Garda could not recall a ligature at the scene, though he did recall seeing it around Kate’s neck at the morgue and found it “odd” that it was there. Dr Fakih who pronounced Kate dead at 2:50 PM could not recall seeing a ligature. Only the accompanying Garda, Patrick O’Neill seemed certain a ligature was there at the scene. Meanwhile, the ligature itself, whatever it was, had disappeared entirely, probably destroyed at the morgue. Even if the ligature had been there, because the body had been moved, only Brendan Bruen would have seen for sure how it was placed around the neck.
Inquest or trial?
Despite the fact that this was supposed to be an inquest, the Garda barrister had free rein to interrupt (which she did repeatedly) and to question every single witness whether or not the evidence concerned the Gardaí. The Garda barrister was the state prosecutor and Kate Fitzgerald was the defendant.
Unfortunately, this was a post-mortem trial,so Kate could not speak for herself. In spite of the trial structure, no one could be called as a defence witness for Kate. Even the jury, who showed great interest in the trial were given extremely tight instructions that virtually precluded from returning anything but a suicide verdict. “You will have to explain why you did not bring a suicide verdict” they were told by the coroner. Naturally, they only left the room for a matter of minutes.
Despite having submitted a statement to the coroner on 26 February, and making repeated requests for an answer, the coroner’s office refused to give an indication on whether Kate’s father could testify at his own daughter’s inquest. Finally, in desperation, the family solicitor wrote a watered down statement to get him on the stand. The coroner and the Garda barrister even cut 30% out of this carefully worded statement and he was only allowed on the stand on VERY strict instructions that he could only answer questions and otherwise was not allowed to speak. Protocol forbad the family barrister from asking a question.
It was NOT in the interest of the Gardaí to have him speak and the coroner did not ask any questions, nor did the jury.
That watered down statement was all the family was allowed to present on behalf of Kate. Kate’s mother had a short speech prepared, but that too was forbidden by the coroner. A close friend of Kate’s desperately wanted to speak on Kate’s behalf but was discouraged from doing so for fear of being harassed on the stand by the Garda barrister.
No one was allowed to speak for Kate at this inquest. The family wanted to read a letter from Ernst and Young manager John Ward, who spoke effusively of Kate’s interview for a Senior PR position only four days before she died. We were not able to find a way to do that.
Investigation of the scene of death
With regard to searching the scene of the crime, Garda Dave Healy, the lead Garda investigator, stated very clearly as follows in his statement
“I didn’t ask Claire or Brendan (the people who found the body) to point out where the body of Kate Fitzgerald was found hanging. I spoke to them very briefly and I did not bring them back into the house. They just said that they had found her hanging from a frame behind the bedroom door. I didn’t examine that area. I can’t remember what was behind the door. I didn’t search the bedroom” and later he says:“The scene was not technically examined. I gave the bedroom a cursory search. I gave the living room a cursory search also.”
On the stand Garda Healy stated that he did not take photographs of the scene as he was not aware of any Garda procedure to do so.He stated he had never been to a death scene before and that he only recalled some of the information he had learned in Templemore about what the procedure was. He said he did not consult with any senior Garda or detective about what to do at the scene. He did not consider any option besides suicide.
Controlling access to the scene
Under questioning Garda Healy said he had no knowledge of Kate Fitzgerald’s keys The keys that he used and took back to the station, was the spare key held by Derek Lande and used to access the house that day. He did not see Kate’s keys in the house and he did not look for them. He conducted a visual inspection of the windows. He did not mention that the back window in the kitchen was not lockable. This was known to the family since Kate moved in. She sometimes used it to get in if she forgot her keys. Two days later, and before any result from the autopsy, the Gardaí gave the keys to the house to Kate’s friends and they cleared everything out. There was no protection and no preservation of the scene.
Brendan Bruen’s description of the way Kate was hanging in his first statement is as follows:
“Kate was hanging from the top shelf of the boiler press behind the door. She was barely off the ground so her neck was very tightly up against the shelf.“
In his second statement, taken in June 2012, his description is very consistent and slightly more detailed:
“The shelf is latted and she had a belt, brown (light) fabric material knotted to the shelf and around her neck. I opened the knot on the lats and took her down. The knot on the shelf was a very short distance from the part of the belt around her neck.”
Under questioning, he said it was 6-9 inches between her neck and the shelf. From this description there did not appear to be enough ligature length to put the belt around her own neck, while it would have been easy enough for someone else to do it.
In Clare Hayes Brady’s testimony she said:
“I honestly believe and recall that when I saw Kate her feet were in front of her and it seemed her heels were on the floor.”
This description sounds more consistent with someone being dragged to the place of hanging than self-hanging. Combined with the “very short” belt, it does raise serious questions which now cannot be answered. None of this was discussed at the inquest.
Pathologist Dr Sabah was asked to read her statement under oath. We all had copies and could read along with her. However when she got to the cause of death, she substituted the word “hanging” instead of “ligature strangulation”.
She called it a typographical error, when in fact there are distinct definitions. According to a chief medical examiner, “Strangulation should not be used as a synonym for hanging. Strangulation is defined as asphyxia by closure of the blood vessels and/ or air passages of the neck as a result of external pressure on the neck.”
Even now, we are not sure how Kate died.
For 21 months, the autopsy report has stated that she died of asphyxia due to Ligature strangulation, but since it was brought out that there were no petechia mentioned in the autopsy report. Dr. Cassidy simply changed the verdict to death by coronary right there on the stand. The fact that this changes just about everything about the investigation seemed to matter not a bit to the coroner.
We were going to get suicide no matter what. The coroner kindly noted that this must be easier for the family since it claims she died instantly. No effort was made to see if everything else fit in with an instant death by coronary. For example, if she died instantly, why was the brain 30% heavier than normal? There was a brief probe from the family barrister about the fact that instant death means she would not have marks from a struggle from an assailant, but that was largely ignored.
In November 2001, Marie Cassidy gave a speech at Athlone IT on ten ways to commit the perfect murder. By her definition, Kate’s death was the perfect murder. She said that it is possible to strangle someone and then hang them up to make it look like suicide. But she added: “You have to be careful, you can’t leave any marks.”
A small bone under the tongue well above the larynx was broken. This bone can only be broken by a sharply focused pressure that pushes in at the top of the throat.
Our family research shows that it happens in less than 3% of suicidal hangings. It happens even less in victims under 40. Kate died at age 25.
It happens less with a soft ligature. Kate’s was a soft ligature. It happens less with a wide ligature. Kate’s was a wide ligature. It happens less with a short drop. Kate’s drop was a matter of inches. It happens less when the ligature mark is at or below the laryngeal prominence. Kate’s ligature mark was on the larynx.
Dr. Cassidy quoted one study based on only 160 cases in Ireland and made no reference to this complicated set of issues. A Di Maio and Di Maio study quoted by Dr Cassidy in her statement had 83 hangings and not a single broken hyoid bone. But she didn’t mention that part of the study. There are numerous other studies showing how rare hyoid bone fractures are in suicidal hanging. In one 257 hangings, no fracture. In another 500 hangings, no fracture.
It happens much more often in manual strangulation. Dr Fakih, the doctor who pronounced Kate dead, noted an indentation at the right side of Kate’s neck, in the area of the hyoid bone. Dr Fakih thought it could be from the buckle or knot, but acknowledged it could also be from a thumb.
Brendan Bruen, who was the only person to fully see the hanging and take her down, testified that the buckle or knot was at the back of her neck and she was facing away from the shelving from which she hung.
In summary, this inquest has raised more questions than it answered. There was no proper investigation of the scene. The testimony was not balanced. Kate Fitzgerald did not get justice and her family will continue to fight. We do not want this to happen to any other family.
Tom and Sally Fitzgerald
Previously: Death By Suicide