Justice for Ashley: Victory for family after four-year battle to overturn inquest verdict

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TRAGIC Fenland teenager Ashley Sammons’ death was not down to the couple of pints of cider he had drunk - but was in fact Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome or as it is sometimes known an ‘adult cot death’.

That was the finding of an inquest held just before Christmas after the 17-year-old’s family took on the legal system and won the right to a second hearing - something that is extremely rare.

Dawn and Graham Sammons were left distraught and dissatisfied following an inquest in September 2006, which attributed their son’s death to the fact he had consumed around two pints of cider whilst watching an England football match at the family’s Emneth home on June 21 2006.

Animal-mad Ashley was found dead the following morning by his dad and a post mortem carried out by Dr William Landells at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in King’s Lynn put the cause of death down to ‘gastric aspiration following alcohol consumption’.

This essentially meant Ashley had choked on his vomit.

But Dawn explained they never believed the findings and at the time Dr Landells told the inquest Ashley’s death was ‘unique’ because he had never before seen someone choke and die from such little alcohol.

“We knew it was wrong, we always felt Ashley had died as the result of Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS), which is basically where there is a malfunction of the electrodes in the heart - it is like an adult cot death,” explained Dawn.

“He had gone out to feed the dogs so we knew he had collapsed from a standing position, that’s why it just didn’t make any sense. We felt a wrong had been done by Ashley. People have said changing the verdict won’t change anything, but we felt we wanted the true story to be told - we wanted justice for Ashley,” she added.

In fact Ashley’s death was even used as a warning to other teenagers about the dangers of alcohol and it left Graham not only grieving for his beloved eldest son, but also with a sense of guilt.

He had bought the cider and allowed Ashley to enjoy it while they watched the football together.

The family wrote to coroner Bill Knowles to express their dissatisfaction with the original verdict, but he explained he had relied on the pathologist’s report for his verdict and they should contact the pathologist.

Dawn and Graham were still grieving for their son and were in no position to fight so Dawn’s sister Cheryl Powell, from Birmingham, took up the mantle.

With no legal experience Cheryl was forced to learn as she went along.

“Basically there is no appeals process, there is no way to contest an inquest verdict other than to get a new hearing - I’m not saying we’re the first to have done this, but it is extremely rare,” explained Cheryl, who works in teaching.

“We even had difficulty finding first a solicitor and then a barrister to help us with the case,” she added.

But she said they were given a starting point by newly appointed coroner William Armstrong, who had taken over after Mr Knowles retired in 2006.

“He told us the only way was to go to the High Court. Mr Armstrong also consulted a professor of pathology who threw doubt on the original findings.

“And we consulted cardiologist Dr A Grace, from Papworth Hospital who is a leading expert on SADS.

“He looked at the evidence and wrote that, in his opinion, ‘it is unlikely the alcohol was the cause of Ashley’s death. The more likely cause is that he had a sudden arrhythmic death syndrome’,” explained Cheryl.

Dr Grace’s findings gave the family hope and strengthened their resolve to get a second inquest.

King’s Lynn solicitors’ firm Ward Gethin together with a barrister made an application in May 2008 to the Attorney General for consent to submit a claim to the High Court.

A hearing was set for February 2010 but was withdrawn when Norfolk County Council - the responsible body - agreed to a fresh inquest taking place.

Because Mr Armstrong, the coroner for the West Norfolk area, had been involved in the case it was passed to coroner Dr Peter Dean in Suffolk.

Dr Dean asked Home Office forensic pathologist Dr Nat Cary to review the findings.

Dr Cary pointed out that ‘gastric aspiration is quite common in cases of sudden death from a variety of causes’ and in his opinion of Ashley’s case ‘does not begin to provide an adequate explanation for the death’ adding the fact Ashley went from being apparently well to being found collapsed and death implies ‘that this was a sudden cardiac death’.

Dr Landells was informed of these findings but did not contest the conclusion and a new inquest was held by Dr Dean in Bury St Edmunds on December 23.

This reviewed all the evidence and found that Ashley died of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome and the verdict was death from natural causes.

“We know this will not bring Ashley back. But it is a huge comfort. There is a great deal of difference between a verdict of accidental death and one of natural causes.

“Accidental death implies that if you had done something differently then it wouldn’t have happened. But death by natural causes means there was nothing anyone could have done - it was a tragedy that could not be avoided,” said Dawn.

She would like Ashley’s case to influence the way pathologists and coroners look at cases.

“Getting the right verdict for bereaved families is so important,” added Dawn.

The family now plan to continue with their fundraising work in Ashley’s memory.

They set up Ashley’s Ark an animal charity shortly after the teenager’s death and have raised thousands of pounds to help animals all over the world.

“It is comforting to think that Ashley is still having an influence in the world. We have plaques in his memory dotted around the globe and his charity is helping him to make his mark on animal welfare - which we are certain he would have done had he lived,” said Dawn.

The next fundraising event is tomorrow (Thursday) and is a bingo evening at Emneth Central Hall. Eyes down from 7.15pm.

In the meantime funds from Ashley’s Ark will be used next month to help neuter stray cats and dogs at a temple in Thailand.