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Poppi Worthington inquest: Toddler was abused before death says coroner

Coroner says Poppi Worthington was abused before her death Photo: Family handout

Toddler Poppi Worthington was sexually abused before her death, a coroner has ruled.

The "fit and active" 13-month-old was in an "unsafe" sleeping environment and suffered injuries to her bottom caused by penetration, Cumbria's senior coroner David Roberts said.

Mr Roberts gave his conclusions on Monday following a three-week inquest before Christmas at which Poppi's father Paul Worthington refused to answer questions about her death 252 times.

The coroner said Worthington's account did not "stand up to scrutiny".

The otherwise healthy youngster woke up screaming at about 5.30am on December 12, 2012, at the family home in Barrow-in-Furness and her father put her in his bed and went to get a fresh nappy, the inquest at Kendal Coroner's Court had heard.

He claimed that when he returned, she had settled but five or 10 minutes later he reached over and she was limp.

He claimed he then rushed downstairs and the child's mother, who was sleeping downstairs, called an ambulance.

Paramedics carried out a "scoop and run", delivering the apparently lifeless girl to Furness General Hospital at 6.11am but she never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead shortly after 7am.

Medics noted she was bleeding from her bottom.

In January 2016 - as part of family court proceedings involving Poppi's siblings - a judge revealed his findings that Worthington probably sexually assaulted his daughter by anal penetration shortly before her death.

Worthington has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any offence as the Crown Prosecution Service say there is insufficient evidence.

He has been living in hiding since the family court proceedings were made public.

Paul Worthington has always "strenuously denied" the accusations. Credit: ITV Granada

Mr Roberts said a conclusion of unlawful killing was not available to him as he was not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Poppi died from an act of murder or manslaughter.

Although satisfied that she was penetrated before her death, he concluded she did not die immediately afterwards and that penetration did not cause her death.

He said the cause of death was asphyxia as he explained her ability to breathe was compromised by an "unsafe sleeping environment" after her father had taken Poppi from her cot and placed her next to him in his double bed.

Mr Roberts said Poppi, who at the time was suffering from an upper respiratory tract infection, died from asphyxia.

He said the child was taken from her cot and put in Paul Worthington's double bed, where she was anally penetrated.

Sleeping in the bed with her father and because of the infection her ability to breath was compromised, he said.

Mr Roberts concluded: "The deceased died as a result of her ability to breathe being compromised by an unsafe sleeping environment."

Poppi's mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, looked red-eyed and close to tears for much of today's three hour hearing.

Sat alongside her legal team, she left court twice, the first time during graphic medical evidence about her daughter, and a second time, after the coroner reached the point where he ruled Poppi had probably been anally penetrated before her death.

The inquest heard that an investigation by Cumbria Police was so botched that vital evidence was lost, so exactly what happened to Poppi will never be known and no-one will be charged with any offence over her death.

Worthington refused to answer questions about his daughter's death, exercising his legal right not to incriminate himself, during two days giving evidence.

He described his daughter as a "bully" but would not explain how her DNA came to be on his penis and refused to answer questions 252 times.

Mr Roberts said: "As a result it was difficult to assess his overall demeanour and honesty.

"In the circumstances I conclude I could not form any reliable view as to his honesty based on his performance in the witness box."

Worthington, under Rule 22 of the Coroners (Inquests) Rules 2013, was not obliged to answer any questions tending to incriminate him.

The former supermarket nightshift worker repeatedly replied with the same stock answer: "I refer to my previous statements under Rule 22."

During one exchange, Kate Stone, representing the mother, asked him: "Why did you hurt your daughter, Mr Worthington?"

The witness shook his head and gave the stock reply he had used before.

He has never been charged with any offence and denies any wrongdoing.

The inquest heard Poppi's mother was asleep downstairs when she heard the child scream, then floorboards creaking, which she assumed was Worthington attending to her.

Poppi Worthington died in 2012 Credit: Family handout

Mr Roberts ruled at some point after 2.30am on December 12, 2012, Poppi was taken from her cot and sexually assaulted before her death.

He said later Worthington rushed downstairs holding his lifeless daughter, shouting to his ex-partner to call for an ambulance, but she was already dead.

The second inquest into Poppi's death was ordered after the controversial first hearing - held by a different coroner - was shrouded in secrecy and lasted just seven minutes.

Poppi was listed as "a child aged 13 months" at the first inquest in 2014 and her death was declared as unexplained.

In a fact-finding judgment as part of care proceedings involving Poppi's siblings, family court judge Mr Justice Peter Jackson, now Lord Justice Peter Jackson, said Poppi's "significant bleeding" within 15 minutes of the 999 call made from the family home could only be explained sensibly as the result of penetrative trauma.

In a statement, Mr Worthington's lawyers, Farley Solicitors, said:

Mr Worthington is considering his options following the coroner's conclusion today and we are advising him not to say anything further at this point."

– Farley Solicitors

Jerry Graham, Chief Constable of Cumbria Police, said:

I will consider the detail of the coroner's conclusion and his comments today, and we will be having early discussions with the Crown Prosecution Service in order to determine possible courses of action."

– Jerry Graham, Chief Constable of Cumbria Police

The coroner's conclusions, running to 87 pages, which he read to the hushed courtroom, said injuries to Poppi's bottom, which were the subject of days of dispute between medical experts during the inquest, were caused by anal penetration.

Mr Roberts said:

Only Paul Worthington can provide an account of what happened upstairs between about 2.30am and 5.56am."

– Mr Roberts

He said as he could not rely on Worthington's credibility, he formed the opinion of a "broad sequence of events" based on all the evidence.

He added:

At some time after 2.30am, Poppi was taken from her cot into the double bedroom and placed in or on the double bed, probably with her dummy and bottle.

"Her pyjama bottoms and nappy were removed and she was anally penetrated, probably digitally. As a result, Poppi cried out loudly and this probably brought the penetration to an end.

"The floorboards of the double bedroom were heard by mother to creak at this time.

"Poppi was placed back into her nappy, but not her pyjama bottoms, and the poppers on her vest were not refastened.

"The penetration caused bruising to the anus and parametrium and tears to the rectal canal.

"I find that Poppi and her father both went to sleep beside each other for some significant period of time, with Poppi in such a position that her breathing was compromised, either due to the position of the bedclothes, her position within the bed or overlaying, or a combination of all three.

"Her viral infection would, in all probability, also have compromised her ability to breathe freely.

"In any event, when father awoke he discovered that Poppi was no longer breathing and, shortly before 5.56am, he took her downstairs in an unresponsive state.

"I find that, in fact, she was dead at that point.

"The cause of death is asphyxia."

– Mr Roberts

Fiona McGhee, from solicitors Irwin Mitchell, representing Poppi's mother, said:

She is disappointed that Poppi's father chose to rely on his right not to answer questions which might incriminate him.

"While she understands he is entitled to do this, she considers he should have given the coroner the crucial evidence of Poppi's last few hours.

"This is now the third time that a court has found on the balance of probabilities that Poppi was anally penetrated prior to death and my client hopes that the CPS will now take another look at this case.

"She is grateful to the coroner for the thoroughness throughout the inquest and she is relieved that despite the gaps in the evidence she is now closer to the truth, however devastating that truth might be."

– Fiona McGhee, from solicitors Irwin Mitchell

In March 2014, High Court family judge Mr Justice Peter Jackson - now Lord Justice Peter Jackson - ruled Mr Worthington probably sexually assaulted his daughter before her death, and arrived at the same conclusion in January 2016 following a review of the medical evidence.

Ms McGhee added:

The past five years have been a complete nightmare for her.

"Not knowing what happened to Poppi on that day, and knowing that there were evidence- gathering failures by the police in the very early stages of the investigation has made things even worse."

– Fiona McGhee, from solicitors Irwin Mitchell

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