Shots that killed gun-wielding barrister were fired lawfully, inquest rules

Family accepts jury's verdict, but police criticised for operation mired in confusion
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The Independent Online

The firearms officers who killed Mark Saunders acted lawfully when they shot the barrister dead, but the five-hour police operation preceding his death was mired in confusion, an inquest ruled yesterday.

Saunders died on 6 May 2008 when he was shot by Scotland Yard marksmen following a five-hour siege in which he had repeatedly fired his shotgun from the window of his Chelsea home while drunk.

Yesterday, after a two-week inquest, the jury said that the officers who opened fire did so because it was "necessary and reasonable" and that the shots were fired in self-defence.

But the panel added that the police operation suffered from a "lack of clarity". The inquest had previously been told that one of the officers on command did not know who was below him in the chain of command and was not aware of some decisions being taken. However the jury said this did not contribute to Saunders' death.

The inquest has previously heard how Saunders, an alcoholic, set the events of the day in motion when he fired his shotgun from the window of his home in Markham Square at 4.40pm. During the next five hours police spoke with him on the phone but he told them he wanted to die. He held notes up at the window which read: "Please let me talk to my wife. I don't know how this happened. I am not a bad lad. I want to say goodbye and kill myself."

During conversations with police negotiators he continued to ask to speak with his wife, Elizabeth, but senior officers refused. They said that allowing her to see him face-to-face could turn a siege into a hostage incident, and allowing them to speak over the telephone could lead to Mr Saunders killing himself immediately afterwards, given that he had said he wanted to say goodbye.

The Saunders family cited this as their main criticism of the police operation, and yesterday the jury agreed that more consideration should have been given to allowing the pair to speak. But again they said that this did not contribute to his death.

Police officers first opened fire on Saunders at 9.09pm after he had shot at them. At 9.32pm he was shot dead after leaning out of the window and slowly lowering the barrels of his shotgun until the weapon was pointing at the police.

It was suggested that, by doing this, Saunders was essentially inviting the police officers to kill him, a phenomenon described in court as "suicide by cop". Yesterday the jury said that they could not be sure whether this is what Saunders intended.

The jury, which was told it could not find a verdict of unlawful killing, was also asked whether sufficient consideration was given to the fact that, as an alcoholic, Saunders was a vulnerable person. They decided it was not, but again said this did not contribute to his death.

Following the verdict Mrs Saunders released a statement which read: "From the day Mark died I have been committed to ensuring that the circumstances of his death should be subjected to a thorough and independent investigation. I did not approach the process with any predetermined conclusions and I respect the verdict of a jury who have carefully considered all the evidence."

Commander Christine Jones, of the Metropolitan Police, offered her sympathy to Saunders' family, but said that Scotland Yard was "proud" of the officers for making "the incredibly difficult decisions they had to make".

A statement on behalf of the firearms officers said they wanted to "express their heartfelt respects to the family". It added: "Since 6 May 2008 they have awaited the inquest to give their account of what actions they took and why they took them.All involved only ever wanted a peaceful resolution to the incident."

After receiving a file from the Independent Police Complaints Commission last year, the Crown Prosecution Service decided that no officer should face criminal charges.