Roger Sylvester – police condemned for black death
October 9, 2003
Written by Harmit Athwal
It has taken the Sylvester family four years to get an inquest into Roger’s death. A verdict of unlawful killing has been returned. But the last successful prosecution of a police officer involved in a black death was in 1971, despite numerous inquest verdicts of unlawful killing since then.
Clapping and shouts of joy, mingled with tears, greeted the inquest jury’s unanimous verdict, on 3 October 2003, that 30-year-old Roger Sylvester had been unlawfully killed after being restrained by police officers in January 1999. This was no strange reaction but a sign of the relief Roger’s family felt. For they had had to wait for over four years to finally learn the circumstances surrounding his death. His large family filled the converted church of St. Pancras Coroners Court for the four weeks of the inquest, hearing complex medical evidence, intimate details of his life and the horrors of his final minutes.
On the night of 11 January 1999, Roger was found naked by police officers outside his home in Tottenham, north London, after neighbours called them. Two police officers initially attended the scene, but they called for back up and another six officers arrived. Roger was then restrained, handcuffed and, according to police officers, carried face up to a police van and taken to the emergency psychiatric unit at St Anne’s hospital, Haringey. At the hospital he was taken to room 136, for emergency psychiatric cases, where up to six police officers continued to restrain Roger (who was still handcuffed) for over twenty minutes. Roger collapsed and stopped breathing, then was resuscitated but was in a coma. He died seven days later in the Whittington hospital without regaining consciousness.
The jury found that Roger died from brain damage and cardiac arrest and although he had been ‘lawfully detained’ under the Mental Health Act, ‘more force was used than was reasonably necessary causing a significant contribution to the adverse consequences of restraint’. They also found that Roger had been held in the restraint position too long, there was a lack of medical attention and no attempt was made to alter the position of restraint.
Ben Bersabel, a nurse who was on duty when Roger was brought into St Anne’s hospital, told the inquest that he had seen Roger being held down on his front in Room 136. He also alleged he heard Roger calling out for a doctor. Dr Deborah Lawton said she saw Roger being held ‘belly down’ by the officers and left Room 136 to get a sedative when she was called back to find Roger ‘limp and motionless’ with ‘spit and carpet fluff around his mouth’.
Sergeant Andrew Newman, one of the police officers initially called to Roger’s house, told the inquest that Roger was behaving ‘bizarrely’. He ‘assessed’ that Roger had mental health problems and needed to go to hospital – he called for back up and another six officers arrived. Describing his part in the initial restraint, he said: ‘when Mr Sylvester dived to the ground I placed my right knee on his face and took control of his head’. He testified that he was aware of the dangers of positional asphyxia and that at no time had Roger been restrained on his front, only on his side. He also commented that he was ‘unhappy restraining him for that long’, but alleged that Roger ‘kept struggling the whole time’.
PC Anderson, in his initial statement after Roger’s death, described his part in the restraint as ‘my body weight was on his thighs’ – he later said this was a ‘bad description’. All of the officers denied holding Roger down on his front – a position which can lead to ‘postural asphyxia’ (suffocation) which is warned against in police training.
The officers involved in restraining Roger did not receive any injuries. In contrast, post mortem examinations showed that there was deep bruising around Roger’s neck, which pathologist Dr Raus suggested could have been due to Roger struggling against the police officers holding his head. Roger also allegedly attempted to bite one of the officers around his head but this was the only ‘violence’ that Roger showed towards the officers, otherwise he was just struggling against being held down.
Soon after Roger died, the eight police officers involved had a meeting with the Police Federation – they denied the meeting was to agree a version of events. The Police Federation representative denied telling the officers how to write up their notes and that his role was a ‘welfare’ one – to support the officers. The police officers involved wrote up their notes on the ‘incident’ collectively – a normal practice, apparently.
Conflicting medical evidence
Sheila Sylvester, Roger’s mother, told the inquest that Roger had suffered from depression after being attacked in 1986, but at the time of his death was a changed man who was feeling optimistic about life. Much was made of the fact that Roger had used drugs. Immediately after Roger’s death, the Home Office pathologist, Dr Freddie Patel, held an impromptu press conference as the inquest was opened, and branded Roger a crack user. But he was later removed from the case and a health worker who was treating Roger at the time of his death told the inquest that Roger was a ‘model patient’.
The inquest heard from at least four pathologists and two psychiatrists on what caused Roger’s death. Cannabis was found in Roger’s blood and this was used to justify the theory of Dr David Raus, that ‘excited delirium’ caused Roger’s death. ‘Excited delirium’ is a condition usually caused by the use of cocaine (but other drugs, such as cannabis, can be a factor in some cases) and the symptoms include paranoia, hallucinations and confusion. A psychiatrist employed by the Metropolitan police, Professor James Griffiths Edwards, told the inquest that cannabis had played a part in Roger’s behaviour but he refused to attribute the cause of death to excited delirium. Dr Nathaniel Carey, another pathologist, told the inquest that Roger died because of a lack of oxygen which was caused by Roger struggling against the police restraint.
The Sylvesters have fought for four years against institutions which appeared to have closed rank against the family. Throughout this time they were helped by friends and campaigners at Inquest (an organisation that provides support and advice to families of those who die in custody).
Immediately after the incident, on 14 January 1999, while Roger lay in a coma, the police issued a statement claiming that someone had called 999 and described Roger as acting in an ‘aggressive and vociferous manner’. In April 1999, Metropolitan police were forced to ‘apologise’ for issuing this false statement. The police admitted that such words were not used and that ‘our press office was therefore wrong in implying that a call from the member of the public described Roger as behaving in that way.’
Roger’s family were also unhappy that the Metropolitan police’s own internal Complaints Investigation Bureau (CIB) initially investigated Roger’s death – not an ‘outside’ police force as is usually the case. It was only after legal representations from his family that the investigation was taken over by Essex police under the ‘watchful guidance’ of the Poilce Complaints Authority (PCA). In April 2003, in disciplinary proceedings, two CIB officers were found guilty of neglect of duty after a complaint was made by Roger’s family.
The report into Roger’s death by Essex police was passed to the CPS in October 1999. A year later, it decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any of the officers involved in his death. His family took this decision to judicial review and, in May 2001, Lord Chief Justice Woolf ruled that this legal challenge would have to wait until after the inquest was over. It was only in January 2002 that the first pre-inquest hearings took place. The inquest was further delayed by the sudden retirement of the coroner Dr Stephen Chan.
Prosecuting the police
After the verdict of unlawful killing, the Metropolitan police finally saw fit to suspend the officers involved in Roger’s death. What remains to be seen is whether charges will be brought against the officers. There has only ever been one successful prosecution of officers involved in a black death in police custody. That was in 1971, when Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Mark Kitching were acquitted of charges of manslaughter and perjury (for making false notebook entries) but convicted of assaults on David Oluwale and sentenced to two and three years in prison. 38-year-old David Oluwale, a homeless Nigerian man, was found drowned in the River Aire, Leeds, on 18 April 1969.
More recently, in April 2002, five police officers faced charges of manslaughter and misconduct in public office for involvement in the death of Christopher Alder in April 1998. In June 2002, a judge ordered the jury to clear the officers because of conflicting medical evidence as to what had killed Christopher. Three police officers were charged with manslaughter in 1995 in connection with the death of Joy Gardner who died two years earlier during an attempted deportation. The officers were acquitted.
Other unlawful killing verdicts
Roger Sylvester is the seventh black man since 1980 whose death in police custody has been found by an inquest to have been an ‘unlawfully killing’. The others are:
- Winston Rose, 27, 13 July 1981 – Died in a police van after being restrained by eleven police officers detaining him under the Mental Health Act. In June 1982, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided that no officer was to face charges. His family were awarded £130,000 damages in 1990 after the Metropolitan police settled out of court, but without an apology.
- Oliver Pryce, 30, 24 July 1990 – Collapsed and died in a police van after being arrested by Middlesbrough police officers . In November 1991, an inquest recorded a verdict of unlawful killing. Even though the coroner ordered the case file to be sent back to the CPS for further consideration, the CPS still decided that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. No officer faced disciplinary charges. In 1993, Oliver’s family issued a civil writ for damages alleging negligence, assault and battery and Cleveland Constabulary eventually admitted liability for the death. The family was awarded considerable damages but no apology was ever given.
- Leon Patterson, 32, 27 Novembe 1992 – Leon was arrested and detained on remand at Stockport police station on 21 November 1992. He was held at the station for six days and then transferred to Denton station where he died a few hours later, naked in his cell. A verdict of unlawful killing was returned at the inquest and the jury decided that there was a failure of duty which contributed to, or caused, Leon’s death – those in charge acted recklessly by not sending him to hospital. In October 1994, the High Court overturned the verdict of unlawful killing. At the third inquest in November 1997 the jury recorded a verdict of ‘misadventure to which neglect contributed’ ignoring the coroners advice not to add neglect to their verdict. The PCA ‘informally disciplined’ one of the police officers involved and another escaped more ‘informal discipline’ by retiring.
- Oluwashiji (Shiji) Lapite, 34, 16 December 1994 – Shiji was stopped by Stoke Newington police for ‘acting suspiciously’ and was arrested on unspecified drugs charges, though no drugs were actually found his possession. He collapsed and died after being placed in a police van. The post mortem found that the bones in Shiji’s voice box had been broken, that his body was covered with up to 45 separate injuries and that he died of asphyxiation. The CPS decided not to prosecute the officers involved because of ‘insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of convicting any police officer for any offence’. After the verdict of unlawful killing, the coroner warned against the use of neck-holds and referred the case back to the CPS for possible manslaughter charges. In August 1996, the CPS again decided that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ against the officers involved. The PCA also decided that the officers were not to face disciplinary charges. In July 1997, after a judicial review of the decisions by the CPS and PCA, an inquiry was ordered into the handling of this case and that of Irishman Richard O’Brien.
- Ibrahima Sey, 29, 16 March 1996 – Ibrahima, a Gambian asylum seeker, died after being arrested by police officers at his home in Essex after a domestic disturbance. Ibrahima, who had a history of mental illness, was taken to the secure rear yard at Ilford police station, surrounded by at least 12 officers and, while on his knees, CS spray was sprayed into his mouth, eyes and nose at a distance four to five feet. He was then taken into the police station and restrained face down on the floor for over 15 minutes, until he died. He was pronounced dead at King George’s Hospital, one and a half hours after his arrest. An inquest jury ruled that Ibrahima was killed unlawfully through an act of gross negligence and died through ‘postural asphyxia and excited delirium’. The CPS decided not to prosecute any of the officers involved, even after the case was referred back to the CPS following the unlawful killing verdict.
- Christopher Alder, 37, 1 April 1998 – Christopher, an ex-paratrooper, suffered a head injury after a fight outside a nightclub. He was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary where doctors claimed Christopher was a ‘troublesome’ patient and discharged him after deciding the egg-sized lump on his head was not serious. After refusing to go home, Christopher was arrested for a breach of the peace and taken to Queens Road police station in the back of a police van. On arrival at the station he was unresponsive. Officers then dragged him from the van and laid him face down. After some time officers realised he was not breathing, attempts were made to resuscitate him, but it was too late. In August 2001, an inquest recorded a unanimous verdict of unlawful killing.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.