Saturday 25 October 2014

Katy's mum on the search for truth

EXCLUSIVE: Janet French break five-year silence on the death of her beloved daughter

Eamon Keane

Published 21/07/2013 | 05:00

Katy French arriving at her birthday party at Krystle nightclub in Dublin in 2007. Inset: Jill and Janet French.
Katy French pictured in 2007
BEST FRIENDS: Katy French with sister Jill enjoying a trip on the Thames in 1993

I'm sitting in the home of Janet French in Stillorgan in Co Dublin as she finally speaks out. For five years, the mother of two has maintained a dignified silence over the circumstances in which her daughter Katy died. Trying to find the truth for her family has been an impossibility.

The inquest is finally over and an open verdict has been recorded. But Janet does not feel she has any closure.

"Sadly, it means we are no closer to knowing what happened," she tells me.

"We still only know two things for sure. Katy was brought in a jeep to the hospital in an 'Asystole' condition at 10.12am. She had flatlined and no ambulance had been called. Toxicology tests afterwards detected an extremely low level of cocaine, with no evidence of when that might have been taken.''

I put it to Janet that two key witnesses, Ann Corcoran and Kieron Ducie, in their statements say that she had seizures.

"They say that the first seizure occurred at around 8am to 8.15am and the second in the jeep on the way to the hospital, putting it around 9.50am to 10.12am. But these cannot be confirmed by any medical evidence.

"There were no physical signs of seizures, neither from the medical staff nor from the brain X-rays or brain stem tests . . . I didn't smell a strong odour of alcohol or vomit from her. I also recall her hair was not matted or badly tossed."

The attending nurse, Sinead Lardner, also gave evidence to the inquest " . . . the jeep was spotlessly clean and I thought to myself that there wasn't even any dribble or sick in the car as I would have expected."

State Pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy stated that cocaine was the cause of Katy's death. Isn't that the key fact which Janet should focus on?

Katy's mother disagrees: "The open verdict of the coroner, John Lacy, means that the precise cause of death could not be confirmed. The State Pathologist, Marie Cassidy, stated that 'it is not uncommon for a low amount of cocaine to cause a reaction that could be fatal', but that does not mean that it can be stated categorically as the cause. There was a lack of any other material evidence.

"Some cocaine was found in Katy's system. However, in Marie's own words, the amount was very low. Katy had 0.05ug per milliletre in her system when the average in cocaine-associated fatalities is 1. 2ug per millimetre."

Despite what Janet says, some pathologists would contend that when someone has been off cocaine for a long period of time, even a small amount could trigger a fatal reaction. I ask Janet if she is in denial about Katy's drug use.

''I have never denied that cocaine was in Katy's system and so I have to accept that as a possibility. The post-mortem on Katy showed that she was in a perfectly healthy condition with no signs of drug abuse, so I have to ask why Katy, who was so fit and healthy, could have such a dramatic and fast fatal reaction to such a small amount.

"We have consistently questioned whether anyone can 100 per cent say that such a small amount can be the cause of death, especially when there are so many other unanswered questions, particularly about the time delays surrounding this case."

For Janet, key questions remain unanswered.

"We had to ask ourselves, as did the gardai, why would two people bring Katy to hospital, clinically dead, and make up a story about her drinking excessive quantities of champagne, vodka and Red Bull. Ann Corcoran said in her statement: 'We had drank a bottle of champagne between us but she drank about 80 per cent of it . . . she was drinking Red Bull with the champagne.'

"These statements are refuted by the toxicology tests which showed 0.9mg of alcohol, equivalent to 'a sip' as Marie Cassidy put it.''

I asked Janet why she maintains that the time delays contributed to Katy's situation.

"Dr John McDonnell and his team at Navan Hospital had concerns that the stories he was being told didn't add up when Katy arrived into the hospital. After repeatedly sending a nurse to query Corcoran and Ducie, he had to interrupt his medical efforts to question the two himself.

"He said in his statement: 'Our concerns were that they either had a mistake with initial time they had put her to bed or that Katy had a long period of cardiac arrest or a long, long downtime.

'This concern was supported with the initial blood gas, which is the sample of your oxygen and carbon dioxide and acid levels in your blood . . . The story I was being told was inconsistent with the results unless they made a serious mistake in the time they recollected putting Katy French to bed and her having the seizure.'"

While Corcoran and Ducie in their amended statement say there was was no delay, Janet is adamant that delays were a factor in Katy's death.

While researching this piece, I saw sight of an independent expert opinion report by Dr Chris Luke, Consultant in Emergency Medicine at Cork University Hospital. While stating that cocaine was the cause of Katy's death, it also states: "I believe that, on balance, there was a serious delay in getting medical attention for Ms French, from around 08.00 to 08.30hrs to 10.12hrs . . .I believe that such a delay was probably 'decisive' in the fatal outcome."

For Janet, Dr Luke's opinion is crucial: "This all suggested to us that delays in getting Katy to hospital might have been responsible. We wished we could have questioned the witnesses more. On the ninth hour, these two witnesses said they were going to change their statement . . .'

How did Janet feel when Corcoran and Ducie changed their statements?

"Totally exasperated. In their original statements they had claimed that they had put Katy to bed around 8am and then were awoken by a loud bang at 8.15am. They then said they had witnessed a seizure as they called it, and immediately took her to hospital. But she didn't arrive there until just after 10am. That was around a two-hour delay.''

Ducie said at the inquest that he changed his statement because he was drunk and put under duress by gardai. Corcoran also said at the inquest that she was pressurised when she gave her first statement. But Janet does not accept this.

''How can we accept that? He also gave several interviews and both he and Ann Corcoran stuck to that same story right up to the inquest for five years. Obviously, I cannot comment or assign motive to what other people do. However, the fact that statements can be changed at a coroner's inquest is disturbing."

I want to know when did my daughter first fall ill? Why didn't Ducie call an ambulance from his home? Why did Ann Corcoran say Katy had been drinking heavily?''

Would Janet, given the open verdict, like to see another criminal investigation?

"We will question for the rest of our lives what happened to Katy and any investigation that could throw some light on this would give us some semblance of peace. But as victims, we have no say. We are entitled to nothing.

"We had no say when the DPP dropped the charges against Corcoran and Ducie for endangerment, failing to provide timely medical assistance. The DPP told us they could not go ahead with the charge because they could not get enough medical evidence to state categorically it was the delay in getting her to hospital that caused her death.

"I questioned the process whereby these charges were dropped at the same time the defendants decided to plead guilty to the second charge of conspiring to supply cocaine.''

Janet says she is not considering taking a civil case on behalf of Katy.

''No. The resources needed to mount it is way beyond the means of any normal family. Even were we to pursue it, we cannot get our hands on the original and crucial Garda Book of Evidence. It belongs to the DPP. The book is closed.''

But given the open verdict, has the judicial system not served the family well?

Janet shakes her head: "For us as a family, trying to get evidence or truth has been almost impossible. In the earlier criminal cases, the defendants got every statement. We as a family did not. As victims, you are not entitled to any help via the legal system.

"And because it was a criminal investigation, we were asked to say nothing that could prejudice proceedings. So we had to suffer slander about Katy without being able to say anything in her defence.

"For the inquest, we had to pay for our own legal team. We were left on our own to interpret medical records, the post-mortem report, toxicology and pathology reports and statements of witnesses.''

Katy was a glamorous and high-profile model and media personality. There was much comment that unwarranted Garda resources and time were allocated into an investigation into her death.

"Remember, Eamon, that Katy was brought into hospital virtually dead. She was flat-lining. The medical experts agree that her chances of survival were virtually nil.

"Gardai got involved because the doctors were suspicious of the accounts being given to them. They had to investigate a situation where someone is brought to hospital in a jeep and is to all intents and purposes clinically dead. And they did that well, but at the end of the day, it wasn't their decision to prosecute.''

Janet breaks down when I ask her about the pair's accounts of Katy's death.

"Nothing will bring back my Katy. I had a daughter who had hopes and dreams, some of which she achieved. She had smiles and laughter and she was a joy to be with. Yet two people – Ann Corcoran and Kieron Ducie – who like to describe themselves as her friends, portrayed her as a champagne-swilling coke-taking party girl.

"I feel that this has slandered her character, but as long as I live, I won't let anyone destroy my memory of who she truly was."

The pain of guessing at Katy's last few hours is unimaginable to most. For Janet, the devil is in the detail.

"My daughter was in the back of a jeep, her legs draped over Ann Corcoran's lap – she didn't even hold her . . ."

Janet's voice breaks again as her 27-year-old daughter Jill joins us at the family table.

"I feel like I've had five years of my life taken away from me. I couldn't even communicate to my friends the situation or my feelings out of fear that I could compromise the legal process. I feel like I've lost my youth and my independent identity.

"The invasion of privacy occurred on a physical level almost every day. You then get suspicious of people's intentions to a point where you can't act naturally.

"Katy was my sister, my relation with her was certain. But both with her death and the relentless media 'party girl' portrayal, I had a constant sad feeling of failing to protect her. Even today, I don't like my picture being taken because my smile doesn't reach my eyes anymore.

''If there is any good to he found it is in a heightened awareness of what A&E staff have to face and how we should help them by giving accurate and truthful accounts of signs and symptoms so that they can focus on their primary purpose of saving life.

"Not calling an ambulance delayed any impact the medical team might have had. I hope this has brought to people's attention how critical fast response times are. "

The release of selected untested statements by an anonymous source on the day an open verdict was returned meant it was eclipsed in most media. One has to ask in whose interest it would be for that to happen?

Still, for Janet and Jill, it is time to close the book. Different narratives will abound today but there is one truth that will speak higher than any of them. Love. The love of a mother and sister for a beautiful young woman whose spirit sits with them even in the darkest of hours.

Irish Independent

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