Family of custody victim wages fight for justice: Heather Mills reports on the continuing row over deaths in custody

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The Independent Online
OLIVER PRYCE was suffering a mental breakdown when he threw himself on to the bonnet of a slow moving ambulance. As a cry for help, it failed. Police called to the scene grabbed Mr Pryce in a necklock, bundled him face down into a van, and drove to Middlesbrough Police Station.

There an officer noticed Mr Pryce appeared to have stopped breathing. Attempts by ambulance officers to resuscitate him failed. He died from asphyxia, caused by pressure on the neck of such force that indentations from his necklace remained on the arm of the officer who had held him.

An inquest jury decided Mr Pryce, 30, had been unlawfully killed. But the then Director of Public Prosecutions ruled out any charges. A few weeks later the Police Complaints Authority said no officers would be disciplined.

If it were not for the tenacity of Mr Pryce's family that would have been the end of the matter. But determined to fight on, the family are suing Cleveland Constabulary, alleging assault, battery and negligence.

Lawyers have submitted two new pathologists' reports to the DPP, highlighting the dangers of neckholds and asking for charges to be brought. Yesterday, Mr Pryce's partner, Wendy Peart, said: 'Despite the verdict the officers were not even disciplined. It was like Oliver's life was not worth anything.'

The case is not unique. Last month an inquest jury decided an asylum seeker, Omasase Lumumba, nephew of murdered Zairean president Patrice Lumumba, had been unlawfully killed in a London jail. He had been forcibly restrained and stripped by prison officers. The DPP is reviewing its decision not to press charges.

Deborah Coles of Inquest, which monitors deaths in custody, said yesterday: 'There are many deaths where nobody seems to be accountable. It gives us no confidence in the authorities' ability or willingness to bring either police or prison officers to answer for their actions.'

Raju Bhatt, solicitor for the Pryce family, said mechanisms for investigating such deaths were flawed from the moment police were called in, often to investigate themselves. The findings were never made public, even at the inquest, but formed the basis upon which the DPP and the PCA made decisions over charges.

The inquest provides only a limited forum for investigation. The coroner is interested in where, when and how the death occurred - but not why. Inquest argues the proceedings are weighted in favour of the authorities against the families: there is no legal aid for family representation, while lawyers represent the Home Office or police; there is no disclosure of evidence to the family; the coronor has discretion over what evidence to call; and verdicts available to juries are limited. Even verdicts of 'lack of care' or 'unlawful killing' can, it appears, be ignored by the DPP.

But Professor Phil Scraton, director of crime and social justice studies at Edge Hill University College, Ormskirk, said the issue of controversial deaths went beyond those in custody. The events at the Hillsborough Stadium - where a public inquiry attributed blame and liability, but the inquest finding did not - left families confused and cheated.

He argues that in all controversial deaths, there should be a statutory right to an inquiry headed by a judge with full powers of subpoena and disclosure. Legal aid should be available so that family lawyers can deal with evidence in an adversarial fashion, as in a court. The judge should have the power to investigate all the circumstances surrounding a death and to recommend a prosecution.

'The current system has to change. Our research demonstrates that in a range of controversial deaths, bereaved families are suffering grave injustice and a denial of their human rights,' he said.