Wednesday 30 December 2009

PART TWO: Our First Time At A Coroner's Court

This is a guest post by Janet Alty.

Part one by Janet and Mota Singh can be found here. There is more on the verdict of the inquest into the death of Mikey Powell here.

Mota and I attended for much of the medical evidence, which was crucial for this inquest. We could see how difficult it was for the jury, because it was difficult for us once it got into technical details. However they did ask questions for further explanation and the Coroner also asked for clarification on occasion.

What was striking to us was the number of people that the police brought in seeking to establish death from exertion brought on by Mikey's sickle cell trait. But not one of them of them would say it was 100%. After all, the circumstances which lead to death from exertion among those with sickle cell trait are all well documented: dehydration, excess heat or carrying a heavy load. This has been fully examined among US army recruits, where it was established that an unacceptable number were dying during training. None of those circumstances existed in Mikey’s case, except the police claim he was struggling like “a bucking bronco”. Well, you wouldn’t expect someone just to lie down and be sat on by police officers, would you (the police say they didn’t, but witnesses said they did)?

One of the more bizarre claims emphasised by the police was that Mikey had been given a prescription of the stomach mixture sold as Gaviscon. They seemed to wish to involve this empty bottle as a reason for Mikey’s death. However, no pathologist would take this seriously.

The one pathologist who gave evidence who was able to give cause of death with absolute certainty was Dr Jack Crane, who is not only a Home Office pathologist, but also on the panel that selects these people and formerly a senior pathologist in Northern Ireland: it was hard to be better qualified than that. And to him the case for “positional asphyxia” was proven “beyond reasonable doubt” if Mikey was placed face down in the police van. And even if he was “on his side” then it was still “very probable”.

The last person giving medical evidence was the person who received Mikey into Accident & Emergency and oversaw the final attempt to revive him. She finally certified death and when asked, she said that she would give the time of death as 42 minutes before. In our estimation, that definitely put Mikey’s death as taking place in the van before arrival at the police station. She too was clearly concerned about the position the Mikey was in during transportation in the police van.

Sadly Mota and I missed much of the police evidence that followed, but those officers we saw being questioned as witnesses seemed to us to have been highly drilled in their answers. They took the oath and then, or so it appeared to us, just gave the responses the police wanted of them, even changing the evidence they had given in the previous High Court case. I’ve since been told by my friends in the legal trade that this is a common occurrence. Fortunately that must’ve been clear to the members of the jury too.

Equally significant was the way the police officers responded to the question asked each time by Rajiv Menon, the main family barrister. He asked each of them whether, knowing now that Mikey had died, would they do anything differently in that situation? It was both extraordinary and extremely upsetting to hear them say that they would not, and this despite the fact that much guidance has since been given to police about how to care for prisoners in their custody.

Highly significant was the evidence of the custody officer who came out of the police station to look into the van at the state of Mikey when it arrived, seven minutes after leaving his home. He confirmed exactly what Junior (a family friend) had said: Mikey was in the van, face down, with his head at the front. We weren’t there to hear it, but we were told that, after heavy police questioning, he was prepared to say that he was absolutely certain.

Then came a long discussion about the questions that the Coroner would give to the jury to guide them in their decision making. The Coroner’s first draft was greeted with some delight, because the family all felt it gave a clear opportunity for the jury to find in their favour, as it was not focussed on the “sickle cell trait”. I wasn’t able to be there the next two days, but from what Mota told me, the police barristers fought back long and hard and eventually the Coroner came back with questions which did not include “unlawful killing” and gave more prominence to the (police favoured) option of the “sickle cell trait”. However the list did still include “positional asphyxia”, and we just had to hope that the members of the jury would remember the clarity with which Dr Crane gave that as his opinion.

The jury retired on Tuesday lunch time. We were told not to expect a verdict until Wednesday lunch time so Mota and I arrived at 2:00pm. Over the next two days the jury came and went to ask questions of the Coroner, and we were summoned into the Coroner’s Court each time to hear them. It became clear that there was a major debate focused on the position Mikey was placed in the police van. We could hear some of the raised voices through the door to the jury room, which was next to the door to the Court room.

Eventually it came down to agreeing that a majority verdict of eight to two would be acceptable and that one question the jury could not reach a majority verdict on could be left out. Finally, on Friday afternoon, the jury gave its verdict: Mikey had died from “positional asphyxia” in the van between the house and the police station. The family all wept, and there were tears in the eyes of their lawyers too. Claris, Mikey’s mother, who had been holding herself together with total dignity throughout all those six searing weeks, broke down entirely.

As the members of the jury filed out for the last time, we all stood and clapped. Only when we reached the safety of the “family retiring room” could we all hug and cheer and weep with abandonment.

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