Ashley family returns police to dock 10 years on
Saturday 26 April 2008
Every night for months after her brother was shot dead by a police marksman as he stumbled unarmed and naked from his bed at 4.15am, Pauline Ashley would wake at about the same time and pace her home, imagining those dreadful moments.
Even now, 10 years after Jimmy Ashley was killed in his rented flat in Hastings, East Sussex, in one of Britain's most notorious and shameful police shootings, his sister still has nightmares in which she replays the final seconds of the man she remembers as being obsessed with Liverpool FC and English history.
Despite two criminal trials and evidence that some officers lied about intelligence that led to the armed raid in which Mr Ashley was shot in the chest at a distance of less than 2ft, no one has been found guilty of an offence relating to his death. But, this week, five Law Lords issued a ruling that Ms Ashley and her family believe will end their nightmares by allowing them to bring a private prosecution against Sussex Police for misconduct.
An attempt by the police force –whose reputation was badly damaged by the findings of two investigations into the death of the 39-year-old by surrounding forces – to overturn a High Court judgment allowing the civil action was thrown out by the House of Lords.
As a result, the Ashley family will now bring a claim of misfeasance in public office and assault and battery against Sussex Police. They hope it will provide the platform for a full examination of the events that led to the shooting, including testimony from all those involved, and end in a formal declaration that Mr Ashley was unlawfully killed.
Speaking at her home in the Dingle area of Liverpool, Mr Ashley's 45-year-old sister, who along with her other brother Tony has led the family's campaign for justice, said: "This week's ruling was fantastic because we can now try to bring this terrible emotional rollercoaster to an end and make those who were responsible for his death account in court for what they did."
Mr Ashley, a father of one, from Liverpool, was sleeping with his 18-year-old girlfriend in his flat in St Leonards on Sea, Hastings, on 15 January 1998 when 25 firearms officers, each equipped with a pistol, a sub-machine gun and 60 rounds, began their raid on his apartment and two others in the same block.
The officers had been briefed that Mr Ashley had a previous conviction for murder, had used a gun to shoot someone in the stomach, had a large quantity of cocaine in his flat and was possibly in possession of a firearm. None of that information was true.
PC Christopher Sherwood, then a 30-year-old firearms officer, was one of the last officers to enter Mr Ashley's flat but was the first to push open the bedroom door. He fired a single shot that pierced Mr Ashley's heart, killing him instantly.
The police officer, who was tried for murder and acquitted on the order of the judge, said afterwards that he fired because he genuinely believed Mr Ashley, who had a conviction for manslaughter but no fire-arms offences, had a gun and was about to shoot him.
Four other detectives involved in the planning of the raid were cleared of criminal charges at a second separate trial. It is expected that all five men, who no longer serve with Sussex Police, will be called to give evidence in the civil case.
The botched operation, ostensibly carried out to find drugs, was found to have been based on false or wrong intelligence, which in turn was part of a more general failure that went to the very top of the Sussex force. A report on the shooting by Kent Police found that the raid had been authorised on intelligence that was "not merely exaggerated, it was demonstrably false ... there was a plan to deceive and the intelligence concocted". It added the raid had been a "complete corporate failure in duty to society".
Paul Whitehouse, the Sussex chief constable at the time, resigned in connection with the shooting after he was, in effect, asked to do so by the Home Secretary David Blunkett. A Hampshire Police investigation accused him of "wilfully failing to tell the truth" about what he knew of the operation. He denied the allegation.
For the Ashley family, the result has been a succession of false hopes and crushing disappointments that took their toll, in particular on Jimmy's parents, Eileen and James.
Mrs Ashley died four years ago aged 69 from cancer and is buried in Liverpool's Allerton Cemetery, just two spaces from her son. Ms Ashley, who was forced to give up her job as a university administrator after the killing for four years but has now returned to work, said: "I very firmly believe my mum's illness was brought on by the stress of what happened to Jimmy.
"What happened to Jimmy tortures me and I know it did the same to her. He was her first-born baby. My father is like a stick insect because of the pressure the case has put on him."
The family will meet with their lawyers next week to discuss how to proceed with their civil claim, which is not expected to reach the courts before the end of the year.
In a statement, Sussex Police said it continued to deny the misconduct claims but had long since admitted negligence in Mr Ashley's killing and given a personal apology to his family in 2003 as well as a commitment to pay compensation.
In the meantime, Ms Ashley and her family say they will continue to remember Jimmy. She said: "The real Jimmy got lost behind the story. People only know him as the man who got shot by the police. He was so much more than that.
"He was mad about Liverpool and used to follow them around Europe. He was also mad about history. My son used to go and visit him in Hastings and he was always taking him off so they could explore the site of the Battle of Hastings. That was the real Jimmy."
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