'Lessons not learnt and deaths continue'

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The Independent Online

In the past 20 years, inquest juries have returned verdicts of unlawful killing seven times on people found dead in police or prison custody.

But despite the requirement that they reach a decision beyond reasonable doubt, only one case has consequently led to a prosecution and none to a conviction. Deborah Coles, co-director of the death in custody charity Inquest, said the present system "protects those responsible for brutality and negligence". She said: "In the absence of effective investigation and accountability the lessons are not learnt and the deaths continue. The failure to prosecute or discipline those responsible for human rights abuses raises serious questions about current mechanisms for dealing with custody deaths."

Last August, Judge Gerald Butler concluded a wide ranging report into deaths in custody, which made sweeping criticisms of the role of the Crown Prosecution Service. Lack of clarity and direction over who was responsible for deciding whether to prosecute police officers had led to a "thoroughly unsatisfactory situation" that needed to be urgently rectified.

The Butler inquiry was set up after the outcry over the CPS decision not to prosecute police in the case of Richard O'Brien, who died after being arrested for being drunk and disorderly in 1994.

Mr O'Brien, 37, was a market trader with seven children, of East Dulwich, south London. Despite an inquest verdict of unlawful killing, the CPS twice declined to take action against three Metropolitan Police officers. Charges were eventually brought after Mr O'Brien's family took the case to judicial review but the officers were later acquitted at the Old Bailey.

A second, damning report on the investigation of deaths and torture in custody in Britain was produced this year by the European Committee on the Prevention of Torture. The committee oversees the European anti-torture convention.