The mother of a woman with epilepsy who died in 2016 hopes the high-profile murder of Diane Stewart could hold the key to establishing her daughter’s cause of death.
Emily Whelan, 25, was found unresponsive in her bedroom in Leeds on 7 November 2016 and pronounced dead the next day at Leeds general infirmary.
Her parents were told that Whelan had experienced a seizure, but she had never had any significant issues with the condition she had managed since childhood. Whelan’s parents suspect she could have been killed and believe an individual known to her has questions to answer.
Stewart, whose cause of death was also initially attributed to epilepsy in 2010, was found to have been killed by her husband, Ian Stewart, at a trial earlier this year. The re-examination of her death was ordered after Ian Stewart was convicted of murdering his new partner, the children’s author Helen Bailey, in 2017.
After Whelan’s death a police investigation concluded there was no third-party involvement and closed the case, while an inquest concluded she had died in “circumstances which were consistent with a nocturnal seizure having precipitated a cardiac arrest”.
While West Yorkshire police say that conclusion remains and an investigation has not been formally reopened, the Guardian can reveal the force is approaching another police unit in relation to the murder of Diane Stewart. There is no suggestion Ian Stewart was involved in Whelan’s death.
A re-examination of Diane Stewart’s brain revealed it showed signs that “breathing had been restricted” for between 35 minutes and an hour before her death and ultimately helped secure a conviction against her husband.
Whelan’s mother, Caramella Brennan, approached West Yorkshire police with further questions after reading reports about the Stewart case. Brennan said slides of her daughter’s brain tissue had been preserved, meaning similar tests could be conducted.
In March she approached the coroner’s service and shortly after was contacted by West Yorkshire police, who confirmed they would be liaising with the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire major crime unit that investigated Stewart’s murder.
It is understood the pathologist who conducted the original postmortem, Dr Matthew Lyall, is being considered to re-examine Whelan’s brain tissue.
Whelan, a health and social care graduate with an ambition to work with young offenders, had a baby while at university and completed her studies while raising the child and working part-time at a nursery.
Investigations into her death were severely hampered by the failings of Leeds teaching hospitals NHS trust to preserve her body. A forensic postmortem was ordered about 10 months after Whelan’s death but when the pathologist came to examine her body, it had decomposed.
The pathologist “carefully considered” whether her death could have been caused “by injuries inflicted by another person”. He said his examination of the body was “severely hampered by changes of decomposition”. He said in the absence of obvious traumatic injury, he considered the possibility of an asphyxia death, meaning strangling or smothering.
He said that in the first examination, the pathologist had mentioned “a few petechiae in the eyes” – tiny red spots that can be a sign of strangulation – but that they were not visible by the time he conducted his own assessment, adding “the decompositional changes could have obscured any that were there”.
In a judgment handed down last year, a judge concluded that Leeds teaching hospitals NHS trust had breached human rights laws by failing to preserve Whelan’s body, and awarded the family damages.
Brennan told the Guardian: “Despite the breathtaking incompetence of the mortuaries, the coroner’s office and certain police officers during the first look at events surrounding Emily’s death, I’m hopeful the evidence will be found this time around.
“There isn’t a day that passes where we don’t think about and miss Emily.”
A West Yorkshire police spokesperson said: “We can confirm that we are approaching Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire major crime unit to ask about the circumstances of their investigation into the murder of Diane Stewart, after the case was highlighted to us by the family of Emily Whelan.
“At this time there is no change to our previous conclusion that Emily’s death was not suspicious with no third-party involvement.”