Friday 27 November 2009

Our First Time At A Coroner's Court

In late October, just before the start of the inquest into the death of Mikey Powell, currently taking place in Sutton Coldfield, I mentioned to Mota Singh, the father of my great friend Gilly Mundy, that this case had been particularly important to his son - not least because Gilly hated public speaking and as far as I know had done so only once, in support of the Powell family, at an public meeting at the Drum in Birmingham. I can still remember driving back to London in the middle of the night after the event and that Gilly was buzzing so much that he hadn't noticed just how much he was breaking the speed limit!

On the basis of that conversation, Mota decided to attend the inquest and, with another friend from Leamington Spa, Janet Alty, has returned on a number of days. This is an abridged account of their experiences so far:

Guest post by Janet Alty and Mota Singh

We have been attending the Coroner’s Court in Sutton Coldfield, where the six week inquest into the death in police custody of Mikey Powell is taking place.

Mota Singh was keen to attend because this is a case that his beloved son Gilly Mundy was very closely involved as the senor caseworker at INQUEST starting six years ago in 2003 when Mikey died.

Gilly died suddenly in 2007 and the Powell family are very pleased to have us support them in his place. Claris, Mikey’s mum, said she feels Gilly’s presence with them in the court.

The inquest is taking place in one of the chambers of the Town Hall, a grade 2 listed building in the heart of Sutton Coldfield, built, they boast, in 1906 for £10,000 and recently refurbished. In the Coroner’s court is a very big bay window which looks out onto mature trees, mostly pines, and the sun shines in so brightly that the curtains have to be drawn.

In some ways, as we haven’t been involved with the family all along, we are hearing the case much as if we were members of the Jury (though we are not able to be there every day). We were there, however, on the first day and listened to the statements of the police barrister and Rajiv Menon of Garden Court Chambers, who represents the family, about how the inquest would be scheduled.

The inquest started taking evidence first from Claris, Mikey’s Mum and the person who called the police because Mikey was behaving in a bizarre manner. We heard her voice on the police phone recording, clearly in great distress and asking for the police to come and help. It was very upsetting. She told of her experience of the police dealing with Mikey and with other family members and told how Mikey called out “Mum, Mum, Mum” as he was being loaded into the police van. It is now clear that those were his last words as he was either dead or very near to death when he was carried out of the van at the police station only seven minutes later.

Next came other family members. It must be so hard for them to keep on telling their accounts again and again, as they’ve already been to the High Court because the police were not prepared to release evidence, which is why it has taken so long for the inquest to take place. The police barrister wanted them to say that it was only afterwards that they accused the police of treating them differently because they are a black family. This rejected this many times.

One of the most important witnesses was Junior, partner of one of the daughters. He happened to be visiting his pregnant girlfriend on the day that Mikey died and was closest to what happened when the police arrived. His story was put clearly but was very exhausting to listen to. He finished by saying that Mikey was put into the police van “as if he were a dog”.

As we are both great people watchers, we spend a considerable time observing the jury members. When they first walked in we were all taken aback with surprise that there wasn’t a single black member, even though they were drawn from the Birmingham Electoral Register.

It has been a very tough job for the jury, especially for the three days that the medical evidence was being given. It seems the pathologists could nor agree on the cause of death and appeared to give conflicting evidence. The medical witnesses are crucial to the case as the family want to prove that Mikey died at the very least of police negligence, if not directly of police brutality, and the police want to prove that Mikey had an underlying condition (sickle cell trait) which made him more likely to collapse and die. The family is very aggrieved at the sickle cell phenomenon being brought into this, as t it appears o them that the police want to use this genetic difference as the excuse for any black person suffering at the hands of the police.

At the end of Tuesday we felt that the balance of the medical evidence lay with the family’s case, but there are more days of questioning still to hear (mostly by the police officers involved) so it is certainly not a clear cut situation.

We are pretty impressed with the Coroner, Stephen Campbell. He is unfailingly respectful to everyone in the Court Room, including the family members who are there to listen, as we are. We felt, however, that the police’s barrister was sometimes patronising to the family members and even to medical witnesses.

In a situation like this where something truly terrible happened, the one thing one can hope for is that some good might come from it. On Monday, one of the medical witnesses said that as a result of being involved in this inquest, he was going to review some of his procedures. He is a teaching professor and highly regarded in his field, so we can only hope that he will make a difference across the medical profession, particularly among his students.

We will be going back for the final summing up and it will no doubt be very emotional, no matter which way it turns out. And we can be sure it will be covered not only by the local Birmingham Mail which carries a report of every session, but by the national papers and TV radio. Please listen out, as the result will undoubtedly have many repercussions.

1 Comment:

Unknown said...

Thanks to Janet Alty and Mota Singh for this. The family have truly appreciated the support they have extended and for us it felt like Gilly was right there with us all over again.

Just a few days ago my sister told me that she still has a voice message from Gilly on her mobile which she cannot bring herself to delete.... I think that pretty much sums up the high respect that we had for Gilly who never failed in his support for us.

For Justice!

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