Family appeals for action over remand killing

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The Independent Online

A decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions not to bring criminal charges against prison officers at a private jail where an inmate was unlawfully killed will be challenged by the dead man's family this week in the High Court.

David Calvert-Smith said last year that there was a "lack of evidence" to prosecute officers involved in the restraint of Alton Manning, 33, a remand prisoner who died from asphyxia at Blakenhurst prison near Redditch in 1995.

This week's judicial review of the DPP's decision will again put the Crown Prosecution Service under scrutiny for its handling of death-in-custody cases. A damning official report into such cases last August found the CPS system was "inefficient and fundamentally unsound".

In Mr Manning's case, the DPP ruled in February 1999 that the medical evidence on cause of death was "too imprecise". He was being restrained by six or seven officers and the DPP decided the factual evidence disclosed "too many inconsistencies to say by what act or acts or by whom the asphyxiation was caused".

The decision shocked Mr Manning's relatives, who had been at his inquest in March 1998 when a jury returned a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing. They had heard eye-witness evidence that Mr Manning was held in a neck-lock by a prison officer. Under oath, several officers had earlier denied using dangerous or unlawful holds.

Mr Manning's sister, Elizabeth Melbourne, said last night: "He was unlawfully killed and I don't see why we should have had to go through nearly five years of hard slog to get answers. They have taken a life and they are trying to cover it over as though he is not a human being, because he is a prisoner. He is somebody's child and he does matter."

She said the DPP's decision had left the family "angry and disgusted" but she was confident it would be overturned at the review, which opens tomorrow.

Mrs Melbourne hoped the review would lead to a change in procedures for providing explanations of future CPS decisions in death-in-custody cases.

The family has also made a formal complaint against West Mercia police, saying police who interviewed prison staff did not treat the matter as a criminal investigation. Last September, at a preliminary hearing to this week's review, DPP lawyers conceded that the earlier explanation of their decision not to prosecute had been "badly drafted".

They agreed there was sufficient evidence to establish pressure on the neck as at least a contributory cause of death and to identify the officer responsible for that pressure.

But the DPP lawyers maintain it would not be possible to identify the precise act of that officer which resulted in the fatal pressure. They say such pressure could be defended as having been applied accidentally or in self-defence.

Last night the CPS said: "We hope the hearing will clarify the extent to which the CPS can lawfully inform families in death-in-custody cases of detailed reasons for our decision.

"The CPS wishes to be as open as possible with families but in such cases we are constrained by the need to ensure potential defendants are not 'tried' for alleged offences outside the criminal trial process."

Next Tuesday an inquest will open into the death of another Blakenhurst prisoner, Graham Biddle, 28, who died in hospital seven days after being found in his cell in the segregation unit. The prisoner had learning difficulties and a history of self-harm.