Verdict opens way for action against officers

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The Independent Online

A verdict of "unlawful killing" has only ever been recorded against the police by an inquest jury on about five occasions.

Yesterday's decision at Southwark coroners' court against Metropolitan Police officers raises a number of disturbing questions about the criminal justice system. It also revealed what the coroner described as an "appalling lack of instruction" in training police officers in restraint techniques. In addition it will lead to a flurry of new inquiries and demands for criminal prosecutions and compensation for damages.

Lawyers for the family of the victim, Richard O'Brien, have complained that the Metropolitan Police refused access to any of their findings.

After yesterday's verdict Scotland Yard said that a new report on the incident would be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions in the light of the jury's verdict. Fiona Murphy, solicitor for the family, said she would be pressing for criminal charges to brought against the officers.

Patrick O'Connor QC, who represented the family at the inquest, said: "The jury had to be convinced beyond reasonable doubt that the offence of manslaughter had been committed. The implications are that there's a least a case for manslaughter and the ruling calls into question the decision made by the DPP that there was insufficient evidence."

He added that the evidence from the inquest showed that training in the use of police restraint techniques was totally inadequate.

Alison O'Brien, the widow of the dead man called for the officers concerned to be suspended and to face criminal charges. She said: "If my husband had committed this crime he'd be in jail now doing a life sentence.

"They haven't even been reprimanded for what they have done - I think they should be criminally prosecuted."

The O'Brien family now intends to sue the Metropolitan Police for damages.

Mr O'Brien's death is one of a handful of cases in which an inquest has recorded a verdict of unlawful killing against the police.

Oliver Pryce, 30, was killed in July 1990 by a neckhold applied by a police officer. Mr Pryce had been suffering a nervous breakdown when he threw himself across the bonnet of a slow-moving ambulance. In a struggle, police called to the scene grabbed Pryce in a necklock and bundled him face down into the back of van and drove to a police station in Middlesbrough, Cleveland. There, an officer noticed that he had apparently stopped breathing.

An inquest jury decided that Pryce had been "unlawfully killed", but no charge or disciplinary action was brought against any of the officers.

In another case Winston Rose, 27, choked to death on his vomit after he was allegedly thrown handcuffed, face down into a van in east London. In October 1981 an inquest jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing.