HIS LARYNX was crushed, his body bruised, his mouth split open and his head turned to pulp. Shiji Lapite, a 34-year old Nigerian asylum seeker, died after a violent struggle on a north London street in 1994.
Mr Lapite's widow has been in a limbo of shock for the last four years. This is not only due to his brutal death, but from the knowledge of how he came to be so battered. She heard Stoke Newington police officers describe how they kicked and bit her husband, and gripped him in a neckhold deemed lethal by police guidelines. The inquest jury decided he was unlawfully killed.
Ms Lapite, a mother of two, had expected this evidence to lead to a criminal trial. But the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) dropped the case in 1996 and her own ordeal dragged on into 1997. High Court judges sent shockwaves through the CPS last July by calling its decision not to prosecute "flawed and should be quashed". An inquiry looked into the CPS's decision-making in the case, but concluded that no officers would stand trial.
Worn down by grief, Ms Lapite is drained of words. "She's been numbed," says Sajida Malik, a family friend who chairs the Shiji Lapite Memorial Committee. "She feels it's her fault. She was the one who wanted to come to this country." Last week the Home Office published research which shows that black people are more likely to die in custody "from police actions". Eight of the 10 people unlawfully killed in the past 20 years were black. Six of them died in police custody.
With a disproportionate number of black people dying in police custody, bereaved black families carry the burden of doubt. "These deaths disproportionately involve violence, so black families need extra advice," says Helen Shaw, who works at Inquest, a support and monitoring group which is often the first port of call for families facing inquests.
"What's shocking is the failure of the authorities to inform families about their rights," says Raju Bhatt, a solicitor. "They... are victims of a potential crime. So they [should be] entitled to the same courtesies and information as any other victim."
Instead, families see a jungle of bureaucracy. After a police custody death, a senior officer is appointed to liaise with the family. Officers from another force then carry out an investigation under the supervision of the Police Complaints Authority (PCA). These findings are not released until there is an inquest. An inquest is held if the CPS decides there is not enough evidence to prove criminal responsibility.
"We've been given the run-around by various authorities so it's been very difficult to grieve," says Sandra Downes, whose 20-year-old son Marlon was found hanged in Harlesden police station last year. Ms Downes, 37, felt brushed aside in the run-up to the inquest held this year. "I'm angry at being dependent on others."
"The only assurance I can give a family is that when it reaches the inquest, police officers will be brought in to answer questions which have been in their minds from the outset," says Mr Bhatt. With no legal aid for inquests, families are forced to raise private funds or seek lawyers through groups such as Inquest or the Newham Monitoring Project. When they reach the coroner's court, hopes are often dashed, especially if they expect the rigorous cross-questioning of a criminal court.
A family's legal team at an inquest relies on the coroner's discretion for release of evidence. Even then, police officials can refuse to disclose findings. For Mr Bhatt, this is intolerable: "Families do not need to be put through this torture. There are reforms which can help." Sanctions due to be launched next spring by the Home Secretary look set to remove the privileges to which officers have grown accustomed. But Jack Straw's bid to bring the police service "more in line with normal employment practice in other fields" - stops short of changing the rules which govern the release of police reports. According to Mr Straw, the issue of disclosure needs further work.
Inquest sees this as weak political will. Ms Shaw has called for a public inquiry into all controversial deaths in custody. Black families may not be invited to the conference on police custody deaths planned by the PCA for October, but they are spearheading a campaign to demand justice for their loved ones.
"I'm not after punishment, I want the truth," says Ladi Lapite, Olamide's cousin. "There is a justice not of this world. Shiji's killers can't hide from that."
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