Death of West Sussex woman murdered by her partner was 'avoidable' says family

'Significant police failures' led to the death of West Sussex woman Susan Nicholson at the hands of her partner, her family's solicitor told an inquest hearing today.

Susan Nicholson
Susan Nicholson

Robert Trigg, on July 6, 2017, was jailed for life with a minimum term of 25 years without parole for the murder of Ms Nicholson, 52, at her home in Rowlands Road, Worthing on April 17, 2011, and the manslaughter of Worthing mum Caroline Devlin, 35, on Mother’s Day in 2006.

Initially Ms Nicholson’s death was recorded as accidental following a coroner’s inquest, and Miss Devlin’s was recorded as natural causes, with Trigg, 51, claiming he woke to find Ms Nicholson dead on the sofa, five years after he claimed he woke up to find Caroline dead in bed.

After Ms Nicholson’s parents, Peter and Elizabeth Skelton, launched an investigation into their daughter’s 'accidental' death, the High Court overturned the verdict of the original inquest and ordered a fresh enquiry.

Susan Nicholson

A Pre-Inquest Review (PIR) was held this afternoon (Tuesday) into the death of Ms Nicholson, whose family said they 'don’t trust police’. Read more here

A lawyer for the police also spoke at the hearing and disputed there were 'significant failures' although the police were aware of 'missed opportunities'.

'Alarm bells should have been ringing'

Speaking at the hearing, Heather Williams, solicitor for the family, said: "The question we are asking is if there has been a breach of Article 2 of the police code, the Osman Duty, which means police have a 'duty of care' to warn people they are in danger. I say yes.

Robert Trigg, pictured arriving at Lewes Crown Court last year, after being found guilty of murder and manslaughter

"Robert Trigg was at large and in a position to kill Susan Nicholson in April but she didn't know. Things that could have been done were not. That suggests significant police failures by police after the death of Caroline."

Miss Williams told the hearing Trigg had a well-documented history of domestic violence towards at least three previous partners, which was made available to police. She said one former partner had told police officers Trigg had threatened to kill her, was abusive and displayed 'violent and delusional' behaviour.

In the four months leading up to Ms Nicholson's murder, Miss Williams said Ms Nicholson had been beaten by Trigg and officers had been called to the flat they shared numerous times.

She added: "A neighbour also gave evidence and said there was a number of earlier incidents between him and Susan. She was a highly creditable witness. The alarm bells should have been ringing.

Caroline Devlin

"There was a real and immediate risk to Susan Nicholson's life. There was a pattern emerging. It seems no-one joined the dots.

"She was not killed out the blue, there were these earlier incidents. Any suspicions were not acted on quickly enough.

"Her death was avoidable."

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Police 'aware of missed opportunities' but dispute significant failures

Gilly Jones, lawyer for Sussex Police, disputed that 'significant failures' were made in the context of what officers knew at the time.

"I think we are aware of missed opportunities and there are things we could have done better," she said.

"We were told there were no suspicious circumstances [after Ms Devlin's death]. It was unusual and unexplained but not suspicious.

"There were no reports of a disturbance or injuries. It seemed a death by natural causes. It is very difficult to say we breached Article 2. It was determined an accidental death.

"There is nothing to suggest that police had any power to do anything other than what they did with the information they had. It could not have been known."

However, Miss Williams said there were 'no attempts to contact Trigg's previous partner', who had been a victim of domestic abuse.

She said: "When she was subsequently interviewed in 2016, she was able to say much more about Trigg's behaviour in their relationship.

"It's information that was available to them if they had investigated. I understand it is something police were not made aware of but insufficient steps were taken."

She also noted that Trigg's behaviour was 'suspicious' after Miss Devlin's death, particularly as he didn't immediately call an ambulance.

"A Home Office pathologist should have conducted a post mortem which would have shown up a severe injury on the base of her skull," she said.

"These were clearly significant matters in the case against Trigg. They were fundamental to the success of the prosecution."

Coroner Penelope Schofield, noting the 'particular sensitivity' of the case said all relevant documents need to be seen by all parties before the hearing could proceed.

"We must give everything we can to the family and I am concerned that we can't come to a full conclusion today. I will not be able to make an immediate decision," she said.

The hearing was adjourned until May 8, with a view for an earlier date if possible.