A coroner has recorded an open verdict on the death of a 17-month-old Ilkeston toddler who tragically died while in the care of her father.
Nina Fretwell lived at a flat on Station Road, with parents Yunmei Xie and Paul Fretwell, who have now separated. She died on July 26, 2010 from severe head injuries.
The Derby inquest heard that she suffered a cardiac arrest while on the operating table at the Queen’s Medical Centre (QMC) in Nottingham and the decision was made to turn her life support machine off.
Giving evidence at an inquest at Derby Coroner’s Court, Mr Fretwell said he found Nina unconscious at the bottom of some stairs leading down from the flat. He had been downstairs collecting shopping bags that he had left by the door, leaving Nina playing with a toy in her room.
Upon finding her he went in to the flat to drop the shopping bags off before going back to her. He then drove her to Ilkeston Community Hospital where nurses called an ambulance to take her to the QMC. Giving evidence, he said he didn’t think to call an ambulance and believed he got her to hospital as quickly as possible.
Guy Rutty, a paediatrician pathologist, said a postmortem revealed there were a number of old marks and injuries on Nina’s body, including 12 single bruises and scars that were considered to be older than 48 hours. He said: “They were not directly related to the cause of death but some were not at sites that could be accidental.”
Nina had a fractured wrist that was around three weeks old, the inquest heard. Mr Rutty said some of the marks were consistent with abnormal handling of a child.
Doctor Liz Adamson, a consultant paediatrician, said having visited the flat she found it hard to believe that a child could gather enough momentum at the top of the stairs to cause a fatal head injury five steps down. She said: “It is extremely rare and unusual for a short fall to result in fatal injuries.”
She added: “I didn’t feel Nina’s fatal injury could have occurred in the way Paul Fretwell described.”
Mr Fretwell said he had no explanation as to where the bruises came from other than they were caused by the child’s highchair and slipping on a mat.
Asked by deputy coroner Louise Pinder what his response was to his account being questioned, he said: “I’m disgusted with it. I have two older children and have never done anything to them.”
Nina’s mother, Yunmei Xie, also gave evidence, breaking down in tears on several occasions. She had been at work at a Chinese restaurant in Belper at the time. She said Nina did not like going up and down the stairs.
She told the court that Nina had been happy that day: “I said goodbye to her, kissed her, it was the last time I saw her.” she said.
Det Con Marcey Buttery, said her officers investigated whether Nina fell down the stairs, was pushed or knocked, was dropped as she was carried, or had been subject to deliberate injuries.
But she said: “There was no direct evidence to support any of the theories.
“The CPS reviewed everything but there was insufficient evidence for a criminal prosecution.”
Ms Pinder said that Paul Fretwell had dismissed suggestions he was responsible for Nina’s injuries, despite Xie having said the child was scared of the stairs and would cry when she approached them.
Ms Pinder, speaking in open court, noted that Mr Fretwell also altered his account, changing from saying it was a set of ten stairs to five stairs that Nina had fallen down.
She said: “She was clearly extremely ill when he found her. He said her eyes were fluttering and fixed. It seems inconceivable that he did not immediately drop the bags and go to her aid. He did not call 999 despite his daughter being unconscious.”
“The precise circumstances of how Nina Fretwell sustained a fatal head injury while in the care of her father remains unexplained,” said deputy coroner Louise Pinder.
“The various evidence does not fully disclose how she died.”
“On the balance of probabilities and based on the evidence heard at inquest I conclude that her head injury was not compatible with a fall down the stairs.”
“An open verdict is the only appropriate verdict in my view, given that the exact circumstances of Nina’s death remain unknown.”