Nigerian killed unlawfully by police, jury says

A force under fire: Day of shame for Scotland Yard as inquest finding adds to woe over damages defeat

JOJO MOYES and

HEATHER MILLS

A jury yesterday returned a verdict of unlawful killing at the inquest into the death of an asylum seeker who died while in custody at a London police station.

Shiji Lapite, a 34-year-old Nigerian, died of asphyxiation in December 1994 shortly after he was involved in a struggle with officers who were attempting to arrest him on suspicion of possessing drugs.

He was last seen shortly before midnight after popping in to his favourite restaurant in north-east London, where he bought drinks for his friends.

Ten minutes later, according to police reports, Mr Lapite had become "the most violent man I have ever come across"; a man whose extreme strength and aggressiveness, they said, suggested the use of crack cocaine. He had also grown three inches, to 6ft 1in, instead of the 5ft 10in recorded by a Home Office pathologist.

His friends and family say that he was a "deeply religious" man. They are at a loss to explain the 41g of crack cocaine which was apparently placed by a tree by Mr Lapite shortly before his arrest. "He didn't take drugs," said Nigel Lewis, with whom Mr Lapite had been staying shortly before his death.

Mr Lapite sustained 45 injuries during his arrest. One witness described how he had heard "terrible screams, like someone was being hurt", before he saw Mr Lapite being carried into a police van.

According to the arresting officers, from Stoke Newington police station, Mr Lapite, had "pretended to be unconscious". When the officers realised that Mr Lapite's condition had deteriorated, he was taken to nearby Homerton Hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The Lapite verdict - the second unlawful killing verdict in three months on a man in police custody - was swift and unanimous.

It has triggered fresh controversy about the use of neck holds by police when controlling suspects. The coroner, Dr Stephen Chan, called upon the Association of Chief Police Officers to "ensure that all police officers are left in no doubt of the hazards and danger of this practice". Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, which helps the families of those who die in custody, said the verdict was an indictment of the police.

"Previous deaths have resulted from neck holds and yet they haven't been banned and therefore, there will remain a doubt about the accountability of the police," she said.

Olamide Susan Jones, Mr Lapite's wife, described the hearing as "traumatic". She added: "I'm relieved that my children are going to grow up to learn that their father was unlawfully killed by the police."

The inquest, at St Pancras coroner's court in north London, heard that Mr Lapite, who had two children, had been stopped for "acting suspiciously" in Clapton, east London, shortly before midnight on 15 December 1994 by two plain clothes police officers.

During what Constables Paul Wright and Andrew McCallum described as "a violent struggle", PC Wright, 28, told the court that Mr Lapite had attempted to strangle him, although a Home Office pathologist said that "serious doubt must be thrown on the allegation" because of the lack of marks around the officer's neck.

Mr Lapite, who PC McCallum admitted kicking twice in the head "as hard as he could", was placed in a neck hold during the struggle and eventually overpowered. He was found to have sustained a fracture to his voice box, the cause of death being recorded as "asphyxiation, with a contributory cause of cocaine intoxication".

Neither officer was able to explain what Dr Chan described as the "gross disparity" of injuries sustained by Mr Lapite and the officers. The jury heard that one pathologist had counted 45 separate injuries on the body of the deceased, compared to "superficial" injuries sustained by the officers.

The verdict came at the end of a bad day for the Metropolitan Police's reputation. In one court, the force paid out more than pounds 90,000 in costs and damages to a teacher, trainee solicitor and photographer who claimed they had been assaulted, falsely imprisoned and maliciously prosecuted by officers - one of whom had applied a neck hold. In another, a former officer with 24 years service was convicted of jury nobbling. Meanwhile, the Commons Public Accounts Committee lambasted Scotland Yard for failing to notice that its its accountant, Anthony Williams, had stolen pounds 5m from police funds.

Yesterday as the Crown Prosecution Service said it would reconsider its earlier decision not to prosecute any of the officers involved in Mr Lapite's death, Scotland Yard said the two officers remained suspended.

A Yard spokesman said it would also be sending a dossier to the Police Complaints Authority to see if any disciplinary action should follow.

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