Detectives assumed death was suicide

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The Independent Online
WITH HIS anorak engulfed in flames, Michael Menson staggered for nearly 400 yards to the edge of a busy road before collapsing.

His actions were hardly those of someone who had tried to burn himself to death. Yet the initial response of police called in to investigate the incident was that the 30-year-old musician had set himself on fire because he was mentally ill.

An inquest verdict yesterday that Mr Menson died of unlawful killing prompted his family to make an angry denunciation of the police's handling of the affair.

The family solicitor, Michael Schwarz, said: "The police made serious errors, some of which they have admitted, none of which they have apologised for, at crucial stages of the investigation. At the inquest the police's agenda seemed to be to protect themselves and they shamelessly exploited these gaps in the evidence to create doubts."

The inquest verdict will prompt further criticism of the way police respond to the suspicious deaths of young black men.

The Menson case bears some striking similarities to the investigation into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, who was stabbed to death in 1993.

In both cases, police called to the scene appeared to take the view that the victim had in some way brought his injuries on himself. Stephen Lawrence, they believed, had been involved in a fight, while Mr Menson had set himself alight.

In both cases, officers appeared reluctant to act on evidence that a gang of white youths had attacked the victim.

Reeling under a wave of negative publicity from the Lawrence public inquiry, which resumed yesterday, the Metropolitan Police acted last month to deflect criticism of its handling of the Menson case.

John Townsend, deputy assistant commissioner, wrote to the family's solicitor: "I accept that police action at the scene and for the first 12 hours was not as thorough as I would have wished."

He conceded that the first two officers on the scene - a detective constable and a trainee investigator - had made three wrong assumptions about the victim: that he was mentally ill, that he had set fire to himself and that his injuries were not life-threatening. Because of those mistakes, the crime scene was not sealed for forensic examination until 12 hours later. But those were not the only errors. When Mr Menson was taken in to North Middlesex Hospital he told a nurse he had been attacked. She passed the information to a police officer but it was not acted upon.

When an officer at the hospital told colleagues that Mr Menson's injuries could be life-threatening, his words were recorded in the log as "not life threatening".

Mr Menson's condition briefly improved and after he was moved to Billericay Hospital in Essex he told relatives and hospital staff that he had been followed from a bus by four white youths.

But in the two weeks he was in the hospital, before his condition deteriorated and he lapsed into a coma, police did not come to interview him.

Mr Menson's sister, Essie, a paediatrician at Royal Sussex County Hospital in Brighton, said: " We had no idea that the police would fail to do what can only be expected to be their basic task. I've never heard of a serious investigation which makes so little effort to [speak to] the person who has been attacked."

Mr Menson was the son of a Ghanaian diplomat and became a top ten recording artist. He was recognisable to many music fans as a member of Double Trouble and the Rebel MC, which had five hit singles in the late 1980s.

But to the officers who were called to investigate his killing, Mr Menson was just another black schizophrenic.

As long ago as 1983, research was produced showing that many more Afro- Caribbeans have been "sectioned" (locked up) under Section 136 of the Mental Health Act because of contact with the police than after referral by doctors. A three-year study by Mind, the mental health charity, found a disproportionate number of Afro-Caribbeans among police referrals and criticised the police for "inherent racism".

The Metropolitan Police has moved to take action against the officers whose mistakes may well have ensured that Mr Menson's killers will never be caught.

Four junior officers involved in the investigation have had what Scotland Yard described as "words of advice and constructive discussions with senior officers".

But three middle-ranking officers - an inspector, a detective inspector and a detective chief inspector - retired before a disciplinary investigation could be concluded.