Police officers stand trial after paranoid schizophrenic dies in handcuffs

Officers only realised Colin Holt had choked on his own vomit when they went to lift him up

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The Independent Online

A paranoid schizophrenic who absconded from hospital died in handcuffs because police officers failed to spot he had stopped breathing after he was forced face-down into a chair, a court heard.

One police officer held down Colin Holt, 52, using the weight of his body while colleagues scooped up escaped fish from a broken tank inside the dead man’s flat following a struggle to detain him, a jury was told.

Officers only realised Mr Holt had choked on his own vomit when they went to lift him up and take him to a police van for his return to hospital, Maidstone Crown Court was told.

Paramedics worked for twenty minutes to try to revive Mr Holt but he was found to have died from “positional asphyxia” – a danger well-known to the police who were given training on the subject every year. A pathologist concluded that Mr Holt struggled “for some time” in a position that meant he would have struggled to breathe.

Kent police constables Maurice Leigh, 54, and Neil Bowdery, 29 - two officers responsible for watching Mr Holt – are accused of misconduct in public office by acting with “reckless indifference” towards the mentally ill man. They both deny the charge.

Maidstone Crown Court heard yesterday that Mr Leigh and another colleague were called within minutes of Mr Holt being reported missing from Medway Hospital on August  30, 2010, after being detained two days earlier.

The officers were sent to his flat in Gillingham, Kent, where they confronted by an aggressive Mr Holt who shoved Mr Leigh’s colleague into a fish tank that broke and water started pouring out.

After a struggle, Mr Holt – described as obese and on medication for his mental health – was forced to kneel down with his hands cuffed behind his back, said Duncan Penny, counsel for the prosecution.

In his statement made two months later, Mr Leigh said: “In order to contain Holt I was using my shoulder against his shoulder and the weight of my body to keep him down for the time needed to return him to his original position”, the court heard.

“From trying to get up, Colin Holt appeared to resign himself gradually to the fact that he was going back to hospital... the force he was able to use was diminished because he was handcuffed.”

Mr Leigh called for back-up and other officers turned up and tried to scoop the fish into a bucket and turn off the electricity because of the water sloshing around the floor.

When one officer asked Mr Holt where he could find his fuse box, Mr Leigh told him: “Don’t waste your time… I wouldn’t bother, he’s out cold,” Mr Penny told the court.

Neil Bowdery was left to restrain Mr Holt when his colleague went for treatment for an injured hand. Mr Bowdery is alleged to have told colleagues that Mr Holt was pretending to be unconscious, but the officer has denied making the statement.

“You will have to consider whether in the period leading up to that remark, Pc Bowdery was in reality neglecting his duty,” Mr Penny told jurors.

“Given the position in which Mr Holt had been being restrained - that is, face down into the chair - such an observation indicates that Mr Holt was not being cared for in the way he should have been.”

Kent police said that both men had received training on positional asphyxia within six months of the incident, the court heard.

Officers realised that Mr Holt had vomited and appeared not to be breathing when they prepared to move him to the police van. He was laid on the floor and his handcuffs removed but efforts to revive him were unsuccessful.

The case continues.