Year after year, the bitter toll of fathomless deaths

Policing the police

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If we are going to teach children of all backgrounds to love the historic culture of the British peoples, perhaps we need to pay very careful attention to the bit in the civics syllabus that deals with the glories of the nation's criminal justice system. In particular, we need to work out how to explain to our new Britons why it is that the one thing that the justice system does not appear to deliver is justice.

It deals with lots of criminals. Some of them are in uniform according to the nation's top cop, Sir Paul Condon. It is a system of sorts, in that it has rules and a framework, and moves people from one place to another. But justice? Tell that to the relatives of the 57 people who died in police custody over the 12 months to March 1997, according to Home Office figures released this week. Of the 29 cases where cause of death has been determined, 15 died apparently accidentally, and two by suicide. Depressingly, seven of those were black, continuing a trend of unexplained and inexplicable deaths in custody that has carried on for nearly three decades.

There are too many uncertainties here. Why do they die? How do they die? And how does it come about that year after year, there are new cases, new campaigns, new scandals; yet there is still a real chance that someone arrested for some small offence this weekend can wind up dead by Monday morning?

The tale of Leon Patterson, a young London man, stands for many. I first met Patterson when he was 17. He was already a small-time crook, who was serving his second stretch in a young offender institution. He talked like a pocket philosopher, holding forth on the inevitability of someone of his background ending up in crime, and serving periodic stretches at Her Majesty's pleasure.

Our paths did not cross again until in 1992. I learnt that after some years doing exactly as he had predicted, he had been found dead in a police cell in a small northern town, naked and foaming at the mouth. His blood was daubed all over the walls of the cell, and his skull was fractured. His family were more or less asked to believe that despite having spent the night in a police station, he was high on drugs; had managed to get rid of his clothing and then beaten himself so badly that he died of convulsions. And he did it all so quietly that no one noticed. His sister Stephanie has spent several years at least attempting to get an explanation even marginally more credible than this. As far as I know she still hasn't had one, and there seems little pressure to establish the truth. No one said Good riddance, but they might as well have done, so little effort seemed to be made to uncover what actually took place.

Of course, it is not only the accused who seem to suffer from a justice deficit. This week, the inquiry set up by Jack Straw into the death of the teenager Stephen Lawrence began. The inquiry has already made its first effort to break through the wall of silence that protects the boys' killers, by offering effective immunity to anyone who comes forward with information. These are desperate measures, and can only really be contemplated because the system has so dismally failed to deliver anything like justice in this case. Initial investigations seemed to be directed far more at the victim than at his most likely assailants; later inquiries ran into resistance from the local community, who either wanted to protect the killers, or were too scared of them (or their big brothers) to tell the truth.

The Lawrences' own private attempts to force those who may know something to speak in court were blocked, and even the coroner failed to move things forward. I am sure that an inquiry is needed, but it is hard to see how it will break through the closed culture that has frustrated the Lawrences at every turn.

And then there are those who languish in jails, despite a mountain of evidence that they are innocent. I have recounted the story of Raphael Rowe before; he was convicted of assault and murder in the so-called M25 murders nine years ago. My doubts about this conviction remain: inconsistent statements, dodgy confessions, flaky witnesses, and discredited forensic evidence all play a part. But what is important is that in this case as in so many others, it is transparently clear that something stinks to high heaven. Yet the process of reviewing the case is complicated, bureaucratic, and expensive. And by past experience, you stand little chance of getting at the truth. You could read into this the lesson that the courts and police are so good and thorough at their work that it is entirely understandable that protests against their results fail. Perhaps; but if you mention Guildford, Birmingham, the Taylor sisters and so on, this argument begins to sound like the feeble rubbish it is.

So far the new Criminal Cases Review Commission looks as though it is taking its work seriously. Good. But does it have the power to investigate properly? Can it, as an examining magistrate can in France, get into a case, order the police to deliver evidence, requisition new studies, and follow its nose to the real answer? Not really. As I understand it, the Commission is limited to ensuring that the conduct of the case was correct. That's not enough. Someone needs to be able to revisit the investigations and do them again if necessary. We need to act before our faith in the system falls further.

One step is obvious, and widely supported. Stop the police investigating themselves. No one believes their findings, probably unfairly; it is humiliating for decent coppers to find themselves forever under the shadow of suspicion because the system devised for checking their conduct is faulty.

Second, we need to throw off the historic belief that once a court has decided its verdict that should be the end of it, unless a higher court decides another way. New techniques of investigation, new insights into the human mind are constantly offering us greater certainty. There must be new ways found of allowing deeper, thoroughgoing reviews of the decisions of courts of all kinds. Perhaps it would exert a new discipline on all the officers of our courts to get it right. None of this can bring back the dead; but we need to bring the right people to book, if we are going to be a society at ease with ourselves.

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