DPP ruling on death of inmate 'is irrational'

The Director of Public Prosecutions chose not to bring charges against prison officers in spite of "clear evidence" that "unreasonable restraint" had been used on a prisoner who choked to death, the High Court was told yesterday.

Alton Manning, 33, died from asphyxia after an altercation with prison officers. The argument began after he was asked to squat naked for a strip search, said Nicholas Blake QC, appearing for relatives of the dead man. The family is challenging what Mr Blake described as the "perverse and irrational" decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions, David Calvert-Smith QC, not to prosecute any of the officers involved in the incident.

Mr Manning, from Birmingham, died in Blakenhurst prison, near Redditch, Worcestershire, in December 1995. The case has heightened concerns about the use of restraint techniques by police and prison officers. It has also focused attention on the way the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) handles death in custody cases.

Two years ago, a jury at Kidderminster Coroner's Court returned a unanimous verdict that Mr Manning had been "unlawfully killed".

His sisters, Patricia Manning and Elizabeth Melbourne,applied to Lord Bingham of Cornhill, the Lord Chief Justice, sitting with Mr Justice Morison, for a judicial review after the refusal of the DPP and CPS to bring manslaughter charges.

At the start of the hearing, Lord Bingham described the case as "a matter of considerable public importance".

Mr Blake described how Mr Manning, a remand prisoner facing assault charges, died at Blakenhurst, a prison run by UK Detention Services Ltd, an American-owned company. "There was clear evidence of restraint that was unreasonable - and therefore unlawful - being applied."

But an initial decision was taken in September 1996 not to prosecute any prison officers on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to support manslaughter charges.

Then came the "rational and lawful" inquest verdict of unlawful killing, and a finding that Mr Manning's death was caused by apshyxia as a result of a neck hold applied by prison officers.

Mr Blake said that led to the decision not to prosecute being reviewed. A review note "now suggests the prosecution was satisfied there was a prima-facie case of unlawful act manslaughter against unit manager [David] Nicholson, the officer who had responsibility for the head of Mr Manning when he was under restraint in circumstances when he was ordered to be strip searched".

It was Officer Nicholson's case he was using an approved lock, said Mr Blake, but the evidence was that Mr Manning had been unable to breathe by the time he was carried from his cell to a dining area and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

Mr Blake said that, although it was now accepted there was a prima-facie case of unlawful act manslaughter against Officer Nicholson, it was being suggested the death was the result of an accident, or an act of self-defence. In the light of all the evidence and the inquest jury's unlawful killing verdict, the latest decision not to prosecute was manifestly perverse and irrational, he said.

The hearing continues today.