Law: Family challenges baton death verdict

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The family of a music and boxing promoter who died after a confrontation with two police officers equipped with US-style long batons, yesterday launched a High Court challenge against an inquest jury's "misadventure" verdict.

Adrian Fulford QC argued that the 1996 inquest was fatally flawed by the decision by the Southwark coroner, Sir Montague Levine, to allow the jury - which returned a 9-2 majority verdict - to hear evidence of 33-year-old Brian Douglas's previous convictions.

The QC was acting on behalf of Rochelle Fields, of Streatham, south- west London, the partner of Mr Douglas, who died from a fractured skull after being struck with a baton.

Mr Douglas was arrested in May 1995, allegedly in possession of a CS canister, lock-knife and cannabis and held in custody before being taken to hospital. His convictions, dating back to 1980, included possession of cannabis with intent to supply, theft, a 12 to 15-year-old case of assault, 13-year-old offence of possessing an offensive weapon, and dishonest handling.

Mr Fulford argued that the offences were irrelevant, "too remote in time" and had been incapable of helping the jury decide whether Mr Douglas might have been about to assault the police officers, justifying their claim that he had been struck in self-defence.

He asked Lord Justice Simon Brown, sitting with Mr Justice Mance, to rule that Sir Montague, now retired, should have declared the convictions inadmissible as evidence. He wants the misadventure verdict, brought in by the jury at Southwark Coroner's Court quashed and a re-hearing ordered. The family is seeking a verdict of unlawful killing.

Mr Douglas was arrested in Clapham, south London, on 3 May 1995 on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs and drink. The police said he was in possession of a lock-knife, cannabis and a CS gas canister. The officers acted to ensure their own safety.

Mr Douglas was taken to Vauxhall police station after being struck on the head by a baton and examined by a police doctor, who diagnosed semi- facial paralysis. He was then taken to nearby St Thomas's hospital, but died five days later - sparking a series of protests, involving marches and rallies.

The judges said they would give their judgment at a later date.