Independent inquiry into recruit Cheryl James’s death in 1995 is ‘milestone’ in history of unexplained barracks deaths
Pte Cheryl James, who was found dead with a bullet wound in 1995. Photograph: PA
Twenty years after Pte Cheryl James, 18, was found dead with a bullet wound to her face a new inquest into her death opens on Monday that may shed light on the long-running mystery surrounding unexplained fatal shootings of young army recruits at Deepcut barracks in Surrey.
The fresh inquest follows a two-decade battle by James’s parents to force Surrey police to hand over crucial evidence concerning her death, which was treated as suicide even though their daughter was said to be in good spirits, cheerful, happy and enjoying army life.
Emma Norton, legal officer for human rights organisation Liberty, which has fought the case, said her parents were “finally getting an independent investigation into their daughter’s death. It has been recognised that questions they have been asking for 20 years are legitimate questions which are going to be examined, we hope, thoroughly and independently”.
James was one of four young recruits to die of gunshot wounds at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002. She was undergoing initial training as a recruit with the Royal Logistical Corps and died in November 1995 after being been posted alone, in battledress and armed with an SA80 rifle, to a gate at the barracks known as A2.
She was found at around 8.30am close to the gate in a small wooded area surrounded by trees with a single-entry bullet wound to the front of her head.
Surrey police almost immediately handed the investigation over to the Royal Military police special investigations branch. The original inquest, held three weeks after James’s death, lasted one hour and heard from seven witnesses. The coroner recorded an “open verdict” .
Liberty finally won a fresh inquest after threatening Surrey police with legal action under the Human Rights Act after the force consistently refused James’s parents, Desmond and Doreen, access to all their evidence in the case. The force then handed over more than 90 lever-arch files of forensic evidence, photographs, statements and other evidence.
A high court ruling in July 2014 said the original investigation by army police was “extremely limited and had flaws” and that there had been “an insufficiency of inquiry”.
The new inquest, by coroner Brian Barker QC, is expected to examine important material relating to ballistics, the finding of the body and the credibility of some witnesses as well as hearing from further witnesses. Pte James’s body was exhumed in August last year and bullet fragments recovered for a ballistics expert to analyse.
It will also examine whether there were shortcomings with barracks policies on sexual behaviour, supervision of young females, drugs, alcohol and accommodation. A pre-inquest hearing was told of material suggesting James “may have been sexually coerced or raped” shortly before her death.
The Defence College of Logistics at Deepcut, Surrey. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
James was the second of the four recruits found dead at Deepcut. Sean Benton, 20, died in June 1995, Geoff Gray, 17, in September 2001 and James Collinson, 17, in March 2002.
During the original and subsequent investigations by army police and Surrey police, an early assumption was made that James had taken her own life.
Norton said the fact it had taken 20 years for an independent investigation should be “extraordinary and shocking”. “But hang on, it is not extraordinary at all, because that is what happened to all four of the Deepcut deaths. It is apparently not extraordinary, and it should be, that these young people who died so long ago were not given the benefit of an independent investigation and their families were shut out and treated with contempt. It is shameful that we have had to wait 20 years for this,” she said.
Of James’s parents’ tenacity, she said: “I say to the army, this is what happens if you investigate yourself. You can’t just expect parents to accept that their luminous, beautiful, happy daughter would be found dead with a bullet wound to the face and for them just to be told: ‘Trust us, it’s suicide.’ Not being told why, or with any, or not a great deal, of evidence, why she might have committed suicide. But ‘Trust us. Get on with life.’ It’s extraordinary.”
In 2002, Surrey police reinvestigated the deaths, concluding there was no evidence of third-party involvement. That inquiry was criticised in a review by Devon and Cornwall police, which concluded key officers in the force adopted a particular “mindset” in favour of suicide as the most likely explanation, which influenced the approach to the investigation.
In 2006, a further review by Nicholas Blake QC, concluded the deaths were most likely self-inflicted, but expressed deep concern at the treatment of young recruits at Deepcut barracks.
Writing for the Guardian, James’s father said: “My family would not have seen this day without the Human Rights Act. It secured us access to vital evidence regarding Cheryl’s death – evidence it suited the authorities to withhold.” Without that evidence there would have been no new inquest, he said.
Liberty applied to the attorney general for a fresh inquest into James’s death in October 2013. The following March the attorney general granted his “fiat” – the process whereby a case can be referred to the high court for a hearing to determine whether a fresh inquest ought to be ordered. In July 2014, the high court ordered a new inquest.
Norton said the high court order was “a really important milestone” for the family. “For the first time they felt somebody with authority and with the necessary power was listening to them.
“They weren’t just grieving relatives that weren’t able to cope. They were actually asking very serious credible questions that were entitled to be answered.”