Lee Donovan was arrested in Newport, South Wales, at around 10pm on Friday 25 April. He was taken to a police cell in nearby Pontypool at 10.45pm. By 1am the next morning he was dead.
Lee’s family desperately want answers as to what happened in the last few hours of his life.
They want to know how a happy and healthy 23 year old went out with friends on a Friday night and ended up dead in police custody just hours later.
Lee’s father, Mark, told Socialist Worker that the family has been devastated by the death. “Lee was only 23 – it’s such a young age to die,” he said. “We are still in shock. I want to know how my son died in that cell.”
Gwent police force has referred the case to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which says its investigation is ongoing.
The IPCC confirmed that Lee was arrested in Newport on suspicion of damaging a vehicle and taken by police to Pontypool station – nine miles away – as the Newport police cells were being refurbished.
The IPCC says Lee was found in the early morning collapsed in his cell. Paramedics called to the scene failed to revive him and he was pronounced dead in the station.
“I think the authorities are embarrassed about Lee’s death,” Mark said.
“In my heart of hearts I don’t know whether we’ll ever really find out what happened, but I know we are going to try to make sure we get some answers.
“I have questions going through my head all the time – why was Lee arrested for such a minor offence? How was he processed? How did he die? What happened in that police station?”
Mark said that the police informed his mother, Lee’s grandmother, of the death at around 8am on Saturday morning. She phoned Mark’s brother who came to his house to break the news.
The family had to go to identify the body later that morning. “We weren’t allowed to go near him or touch him,” Mark said. “They said he was a ‘crime scene’. It was terrible.”
An autopsy and forensic tests were carried out. On 8 May an inquest into the death was opened and adjourned for further investigation.
The family weren’t able to bury Lee until 14 May. They are still waiting for information about what any of the tests might reveal about the cause of death.
Mark says he has been shocked to discover how many others have died in police custody. “It has really opened my eyes to see the number of deaths, and to see so many other families still fighting for answers,” he said.
More than 500 people have died in police custody in England and Wales since 1997 according to campaign group Inquest, which runs an independent monitoring service. From the beginning of 1997 to February 2007 there have been prosecutions in only three cases – and no convictions.
Lee’s family say that he was in fine health in the months before his death and went to the gym a couple of times a week.
Mark said that Lee was also in good spirits and had planned to go back to college to train as a landscape gardener. “On the Wednesday before he died Lee was spending time with his son.
“He had everything going for him,” he said.
“Lee was a very mild mannered man. He was very thoughtful and sincere.
“He had a lot to live for.”
Mark is determined to find out how Lee died. “I want the truth,” he said. “I need to know what happened to my son.”
For help or campaign material relating to deaths in custody go to » www.inquest.org.uk