This week, a narrative verdict was recorded at the inquest of a newborn girl whose body was found in woodland.
The baby, named Pearl by detectives, was abandoned in Bluebell woods in Heywood, Greater Manchester on 4 April last year.
She was unclothed, with no blanket or nappy. Forensic examinations determined she was born with a congenital defect that resulted in her missing two ribs.
Speaking at the baby’s inquest, senior coroner for Manchester North, Joanne Kearsley told the court: “This has been, I have to say, one of the most difficult, distressing and emotive cases heard in a coroner’s court.”
No blanket or nappy
Baby Pearl’s body was found in an area with the River Roch running through it, a popular spot with local families, dog walkers and children.
The police criticised multiple media outlets for suggesting the baby may have been alive when she was dumped, that her umbilical cord was still attached and that she was covered in dog and fox bites.
Numerous appeals were made, but the first breakthrough in the case didn’t occur until four months later when a man and a woman were arrested on suspicion of murder, concealing a birth and preventing a lawful burial.
Both Shane Hutchinson, 48, and Leah Howarth, 33, denied being the parents of baby Pearl until they were confronted with overwhelming DNA evidence.
They were later released without further action and on Thursday they attended the inquest into their daughter’s death.
During the hearing in Heywood, it emerged that four of Howarth’s eight children, including Pearl, were dead and three of the fatalities had been subject to police investigations.
As well as an inquiry into the sudden and unexpected death of a child in 2001, the body of a newborn baby boy was found in a plastic bag on a shelf in the bathroom of Howarth’s then home in Fleetwood, Lancashire, in September 2015.
Unaware of pregnancy
Howarth was interviewed on a voluntary basis and told detectives in Lancashire she was unaware of her pregnancy, she had fallen “in and out of consciousness” while in the bathroom and woke to find a deceased child between her legs, and was discovered by her then partner on his return from the school run.
No criminal proceedings were brought in the case and the cause of death was unknown, but there was some evidence of a pre-natal infection which may have caused some issues for the mother and child, the inquest heard.
Giving evidence at Pearl’s inquest, Howarth told the court she thought she had a miscarriage on Christmas Day 2017 in the caravan in Heywood she shared with her then-boyfriend Hutchinson.
She said she did not remember much because she was “in and out of consciousness” but did recall bleeding.
Howarth told coroner Kearsley she did not believe she had had a baby and she had no idea how Pearl came to be at Bluebell Woods four months later.
Hutchinson said he came back from laying flowers on his mother’s grave on Christmas Day to find Howarth stood “looking shocked” in the caravan with “blood all over”.
He said she told him she had a miscarriage and he then used towels and tissues to clean up the blood and flushed what he now knew to be the placenta down the toilet.
‘She put her there’
The coroner asked Hutchinson: “Can you help me on how your daughter ended up in Bluebell Woods?”
He replied: “Because she put her there. She is the only person who knows about her. No-one else knew about her daughter.”
Outlining the investigation following Pearl’s discovery, Detective Inspector Wesley Knights, of Greater Manchester Police, said a friend of Hutchinson had stated that Howarth told her in November 2017 that she was five months pregnant.
The court heard Pearl was born between 32 and 40 weeks of the pregnancy term, but because of decomposition it was not possible to know whether she was born alive or stillborn.
Home Office pathologist Dr Charles Wilson said he did not believe Pearl’s body had been at Bluebell Woods for very long, or else her rate of decomposition would have been greater.
Police sent the case to the Crown Prosecution Service for its consideration, but the north west’s chief prosecutor Martin Goldman deemed there was not enough evidence to charge Howarth or Hutchinson with concealing a birth.
In conclusion, Kearsley said: “On hearing the evidence, the court cannot determine who placed Pearl in Bluebell Woods because there is simply not the evidence to support this.”
But she added it must have been one of two people who placed her in that location where she had been for a very short period and had previously been stored somewhere else – probably somewhere cool.
The medical cause of death was unascertained.
The coroner said that on the balance of probabilities, she was satisfied that Howarth was aware of the fact she had delivered Pearl, but could not be satisfied that Hutchinson was aware of the delivery.
Recording a narrative verdict, Kearsley said Pearl was delivered on 25 December 2017, at between 32 and 40 weeks in a viable pregnancy, and that her delivery was concealed and she was stored in an unknown place until or around 4 April.