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High Court dismisses compensation claim by daughters of Bury St Edmunds murder victim

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Mary Griffiths. (4716213)
Mary Griffiths. (4716213)

The bolt gun murder of a 'wonderful mother' by a slaughterman who stalked her cannot be blamed on Suffolk Police, a top judge has ruled.

Fitness instructor Mary Griffiths, 38, was shot dead by John McFarlane, in front of her three daughters, at her home in Bury St Edmunds on May 6, 2009.

In a telephone call to police the previous day, she had told an operator that McFarlane was harassing her and she was 'really frightened' of him.

But, before police attended, McFarlane broke into her home with an axe and killed her with a captive bolt gun taken from the farm where he worked.

Her daughters, Jessica, 23, Hannah, 20, and Sophie, 19, sued the chief constable of Suffolk Police, Gareth Wilson, for damages at London's High Court.

They claimed their mother's call should have been graded as an emergency, triggering a police response that night.

But, dashing their compensation hopes today, Mr Justice Ouseley said police were unaware that Ms Griffiths was at risk of serious harm.

"There was clearly a risk of harassment and stalking, and of unwanted presence at Ms Griffiths' home, of which Suffolk Police knew on May 5," he said.

"But there was nothing to suggest that it was an imminent risk, against which measures were required that night".

John McFarlane.
John McFarlane.

The sisters also blamed mental health professionals for their mother's death, claiming McFarlane should never have been at large.

But the judge rejected claims that he was so disturbed that he should have been admitted to hospital three days before the killing.

Medics at the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust had also been under no duty to warn the police and Ms Griffiths that he posed a danger.

The judge said Ms Griffiths and McFarlane had been friends, but he reacted angrily after she told him she was not interested in a romantic relationship.

He attempted suicide on May 2 by trying to hang himself from a beam in a barn on the farm where he worked as a slaughterman.

His mental condition was assessed at hospital the following day and a decision taken not to compulsorily admit him.

On the evening of May 5, Ms Griffiths made the fateful call to police, but it was only graded as requiring a response within four hours.

The police control room contacted her later that night and, pleading a lack of resources, asked if it would be alright for officers to attend the following day.

Ms Griffiths said 'that would be fine' and officers had not attended by 2.40am on May 6, when McFarlane smashed his way into her home.

He dragged her into the street and shot her a number of times with the bolt gun in the presence of her children, the judge said.

McFarlane later pleaded guilty to her murder and was sentenced to serve a minimum of 30 years behind bars.

The sisters' lawyers claimed the police should have graded their mother's call as an emergency and responded straight away.

Had he been admitted to hospital, either voluntarily or compulsorily, on May 3, Ms Griffiths would be alive today, they argued.

But Mr Justice Ouseley said there was 'no basis' for finding operational or systemic failings on the part of Suffolk Police.

The family's lawyers had made 'many criticisms' of the way police handled the call and their response to it.

But the judge said they 'do not begin to show that Suffolk Police had any knowledge, or ought to have had, of any risk to Ms Griffiths of serious physical harm'.

"There was no failure to take a step which they ought to have done".

Arguments that an earlier police response would have prevented the murder were 'speculative', he added.

The sisters' case against the NHS trust also failed and their damages claim was dismissed.