Socialist Worker

'Truth and justice' at Mikey Powell inquest

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2182

The family of Mikey Powell, who died in police custody in 2003, say the verdict of the inquest into his death has given them “truth and justice”.

The jury at the hearing found yesterday that Mikey Powell died from positional asphyxia caused by lying on his front in the back of a police van.

The jury also recorded that Mikey became more vulnerable to death after being hit by a moving police car, being sprayed with CS gas, being struck by a police baton and being restrained on the ground while suffering a psychosis and extreme exertion.

It took the ten-man jury three days to reach an eight-to-two majority verdict. They could not agree on whether the police restraint was “reasonable in the circumstances”.

The father-of-three died on 7 September 2003 at the age of 38.

Assistant deputy coroner Stephen Campbell said that there was still a lack of health-based places of safety in the West Midlands for police to take a person suffering a mental health disorder and he would be writing letters of concern to the relevant organisations.

At the time of his detention, Mikey was living with his mother.

He had become unwell, and was suffering from an episode of mental illness when he smashed a window at their home. His mother called the police for help, assuming they would take him to hospital.

After Mikey broke a window of their car, the officers drove away and then came back driving straight at him.

Although Mikey was unarmed and in a vulnerable state, police officers said that they believed he had a gun. Evidence given during the inquest hearing showed that he did not.

During the inquest, his family's legal representatives challenged the officers as the family suspected that the officers had arrived with preset fears about the area and the local community.

Although injured Mikey survived the collision with the police car and a family friend held him in a bear hug to try and prevent further trouble.

The police discharged more than four times the recommended amount of CS spray on both Mikey and his friend, and hit Mikey with a police baton.

Up to eight officers held him down on the ground for at least 16 minutes. Mikey was covered in blood. No ambulance was called.

A friend told the inquest that Mikey was put onto the floor of a police van 'like a dog'. He was driven to Thornhill Road police station on the floor of the van, lying between the seats.

The van parked in the station yard and Mikey was kept in it for three minutes before he was carried face down for 26 metres and taken into the “drunk cell”.

It was then that officers noticed that he was not breathing. They began CPR and paramedics were called but to no avail.

The central issue at the inquest was whether Mikey had been transported face down on the floor of the police van, and whether this had led to him dying of positional asphyxia.

The police assertion was that he had been placed on his side and had died from the combined effects of his exertion against restraint and the fact that he possessed the sickle cell trait.

The jury found that the positioning of Mikey in the police van had led to his death.

Mikey’s sister Sieta Lambrias said, “At long last the truth has come out. We have worked for six years to reach this point – the jury has found that the position the police put Mikey in killed him.

“Hopefully this will give some encouragement to other families who have lost someone in custody.

“A chilling feature of this inquest is that Mikey died in police hands. Officer after officer told the court that they would do the same thing again. Most expressed no regret for Mikey’s death.

“We are alarmed about this, and think the community should be too. We will continue to fight to secure police accountability and stop future custody deaths.”

Solicitor Jane Deighton, representing the family, said, “Through six distressing years the Powell family have struggled to expose the truth and to hold those responsible for Mikey’s death accountable.

Mikey’s cousin, the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, said the family had always known how and where he died.

'This helps us because it is official now,' he said.

'We are going to seek legal advice and see where we go in the future.

'But now the world knows that Michael died in a police van and was in police custody.'

Mikey’s cousin, Tippa Naphtali, said, “In our victory we acknowledge the distress and plight of the many families in the UK that have suffered a similar injustice.

“We continue to work in solidarity and support through the friends of Mikey Powell Campaign, 4WardEver UK, United Families & Friends Campaign, Inquest and many more organisations.

“In our joy of this verdict we remain without our loved Mikey. His children have lost a father, his mother and father a son, his family a brother and cousin; and the community a fine and upstanding honourable man.”

Deborah Coles, co-director of Inquest, said, “Mikey Powell was a vulnerable man in need of help and protection. Instead the police failed to treat him as a human being and subjected him to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment using methods of restraint known to be dangerous.

“The chief constable of West Midlands police force needs to explain why, six years after this most disturbing death, his officers can give evidence that they would do nothing differently if presented with a similar situation today.

“Have the police learned nothing from previous high profile deaths and the recommendations arising from inquests and inquiries?”

The inquest opened on 4 November 2009, over six years after Mikey’s death in September 2003. It was heard at Sutton Coldfield Town Hall before assistant deputy coroner for Birmingham, Stephen Campbell.

West Midlands police force said it would never lose sight of the fact Mikey died in its care. 'Crucial lessons have been learned from this tragic case which will go a long way to ensuring safeguards are in place to prevent a repeat,' a statement said.

'Michael's death has led to a rigorous and far-reaching of the way we carry out our duties.'

Ten West Midlands police officers were cleared of charges relating to Mikey’s death in 2006.


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News
Sat 19 Dec 2009, 14:10 GMT
Issue No. 2182
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