The jury at the inquest into the death of Sean Rigg at Southwark Coroner’s Court was considering its verdict as Socialist Worker went to press.
Sean died shortly after being arrested in Brixton in south London on 21 August 2008. He was in a state of acute psychosis. He became unconscious while being held in a cage in the back of a police van in the yard behind Brixton police station.
The coroner has instructed jurors to return a “narrative verdict” (see below). He told the jury to consider whether the care and treatment provided by mental health professionals and Metropolitan Police officers was adequate.
The manager of the hostel where Sean was staying had called 999 five times, asking for police to assist because Sean was in a state of severe mental distress. The police did not prioritise the calls despite a formal agreement with the hostel.
The jury will consider if the restraint techniques used by police officers were appropriate. They held him in a face down “prone” restraint position for several minutes. The inquest heard how this position can lead to asphyxiation.
The jury heard how the risk of asphyxiation is intensified if the person is suffering from acute mental breakdown, has been agitated or restrained for a lengthy period. All of these factors applied to Sean.
The jury must decide whether the officers knew the man arrested was the mentally unwell Sean. He was known to police in the area but some officers told the inquest they did not know that Sean was the man in their care.
This was contradicted by evidence from other witnesses. The hostel manager said that in her 999 calls she had told police operators Sean’s name and date of birth.
She said she had also told them about Sean’s long history of contact with police during acute psychotic breakdowns. This evidence was supported by other hostel workers.
The inquest has also heard criticisms of the care Sean was provided by the local mental health trust.
This includes the forensic mental health team’s failure to organise a mental health act assessment or to meet Sean in the week before his death. An independent psychiatric expert criticised these factors at the inquest.
Sean’s sisters, Samantha and Marcia, have been campaigning to find out the truth about Sean’s death for four years. They have held vigils and marches outside Brixton police station.
Coroner requests ‘narrative verdict’
The coroner told the jury it must produce a narrative verdict—which uses evidence to describe what happened and consider negligence. This restriction means the jury no longer has the option to return a verdict of unlawful killing or an open verdict.
Unlawful killing does not apportion blame. But it does mean that there was no lawful reason for the death. Such verdicts are often followed by criminal investigations.
An open verdict can be delivered if the circumstances surrounding the death are suspicious but the jury is unable to reach another verdict.
The coroner decided that the evidence available in this case was not sufficient to allow the other results. The Riggs’ lawyer did not agree, saying that the jury should decide.
Policing on trial: how do we get justice?
Marcia Rigg, Sean’s sister, will be speaking this week at a public meeting in central London organised by Defend the Right to Protest.
Other speakers include Sophie Priestley (solicitor to Ian Tomlinson’s family), campaigning lawyer Brian Richardson, student protester Alfie Meadows, and Ed Greens, who was arrested on the Critical Mass cycle ride.
It takes place on Thursday 2 August, 7pm, Room G2, School of Oriental and African Studies, London WC1H 0XG