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Why Cheryl must be exhumed

Barry Keevins photo
Barry KeevinsLondon
Brian Barker QC has a decision to make

The man appointed to oversee the new inquest into the death of Cheryl James has to tell the family whether or not he thinks her body should be exhumed.

Private James was found dead from a single gunshot wound to the face at a British army barracks 20 years ago.

While she has been buried for two decades, the campaign to find the reason for her death has never been laid to rest.

The army decided she killed herself but the process of investigation and review by police has failed to draw satisfactory conclusions and the new inquest into her death will be opened early next year.

Brian Barker has to decide before then if Cheryl's coffin should also be opened.

Family dismayed

The James family have been pressing for a decision since December last year.

At a pre inquest hearing in Woking, Alison Foster for the James family asked Brian Barker to consider making an exhumation order.

Mr Barker said he would make a decision after reading expert reports.

By May this year, Miss Foster told him at another pre inquest hearing the family were dismayed a decision on the exhumation was still to be made.

Lack of physical evidence

Cheryl was one of four young soldiers found shot dead at the British army barracks in Deepcut, Surrey between 1995 and 2002.

The main problem which persists with all four investigations is the lack of physical evidence.

To arrive at a reasonable version of what happened, evidence has to be collected and catalogued which corroborates and builds to make this description of events compelling.

Exhuming Cheryl's body is the only way to find new physical evidence relating directly to her death.

A standard British army SA80 assault rifle was recovered when Cheryl's body was discovered near the entrance to the officers mess on Monday morning, November 27, 1995.


A post mortem the next day found she had died from a single gunshot wound to the head.

The report from the examination mentions fragments recovered and others left.

None of these fragments were documented or preserved.

The gun found next to Cheryl's body was not examined for fingerprints.

Nothing else from the scene exists to be examined or tested other than Cheryl's body.

Despite 1500 statements taken from 900 interviewees relating to the investigations of all four deaths, physical evidence is the best tool to reach definitive conclusions.

Coroner ordered exhumations are rare

Cheryl's family have never believed she took her own life.

Ministry of Justice figures show there was one coroner ordered exhumation in England and Wales in 2014.

If Brian Barker QC orders the exhumation, the examination of her head and body could well provide real physical evidence.

Family trauma

Peter Mitchell of Peter Michell Associates has organised thousands of exhumations around the country.

On the rare occasions when it has been ordered by a coroner, relatives can ask to attend the exhumation itself.

"It's a very traumatic event," he said.

"Sometimes families say they want to be there and see it happen.

"In this country we struggle with dying let alone this.

"It's a question of finding out what people want and need and trying to accommodate that as best we can."

The new inquest into Cheryl's death is due to open in February, 2016.

The next pre inquest hearing is on September 10.

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