Telford: Coroner tells jury of 'horrific' racial harassment

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The Independent Online

A coroner told an inquest jury yesterday it would be "shocked" and "horrified" by evidence of how a black man who was found hanged in the Shropshire town of Telford was subjected to racist harassment and death threats before he died.

At the opening of the inquest into the death of Harold "Errol" McGowan, the Telford and Wrekin coroner, Michael Gwynne, described the case as being of "an extremely sensitive nature", which "already has had a considerable impact on this community".

He told the jurors they would have to look at photographs of Mr McGowan hanging dead from a door handle with an electric flex around his neck. He said they must listen to a taped telephone conversation in which the builder and part-time doorman told police of "death threats being made against him".

The coroner said they would also have to hear a phone message taken for Mr McGowan at his workplace in the week before he was found dead. Mr Gwynne said: "The caller said ­ I am going to quote because you are going to hear words like this all the way through this inquest ­ the caller said, 'Well, he's a black bastard and he's dead'."

The jurors would also hear from doormen who were colleagues of Mr McGowan about the harassment they regularly received. "You will be horrified to hear of the extent of the racial harassment which Errol himself suffered and the effect that it had on him," Mr Gwynne said.

He told the jury ­ all white and comprising seven men and four women ­ that Mr McGowan, 34, had been found dead on 2 July 1999, in a house in Urban Gardens, Telford.

The coroner said he intended to call about 60 witnesses and hear nine written statements in a hearing expected to last four weeks. The inquest would hear from Mr McGowan's relatives, friends and colleagues as well as pathologists and police officers.

Mr Gwynne said: "It became abundantly apparent to me whilst reading the file that once again a number of fundamental problems within our society, in particular racism ... will be brought into the arena. I have to warn you some of the evidence you will hear you will find quite shocking. Be that as it may, you will have to hear it."

He told the jurors that they were only concerned with the death of Errol McGowan and not his 20-year-old nephew, Jason McGowan, a newspaper worker who was found hanged near a Telford sports centre on New Year's Day 2000. He also warned them not to consider the death of Johny Elliot, 44, a friend of the McGowans, who was found hanged in Telford last week.

He said that an inquest was "not a trial" but if evidence emerged that Mr McGowan's death was "due to an offence" he would adjourn the hearing for 14 days and consult the Director of Public Prosecutions on the evidence.

Sergeant Mark Churm, who discovered Mr McGowan's body, told the inquest there was no sign of a disturbance at the scene. Procedures had been properly followed.

Christopher Bestall, a forensic investigator for West Mercia police, admitted under questioning from Peter Herbert QC, representing the McGowan family, that he and police officers at the scene had not worn plastic covers over their shoes. He accepted "even the most microscopic particle" could be important in an investigation but denied the suggestion that police had "assumed it was suicide".

A dozen members of the McGowan family were among the 120 people at the inquest. The hearing continues.