Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Death in custody coverup defeated by amateur

She was up against the daunting proposition of a police force and two barristers [trial lawyers]. But this did not deter factory cleaner Tracey McCourt from getting justice for her brother-in-law.

A three-week inquest was held recently into the death of Lenny McCourt, who died of a heart attack in a cramped cage at the back of a police van.

At the inquest, Durham Police had their own barristers and the Police Federation - the police officer's trade union - also supplied another.

However, the McCourt family were unable to obtain legal aid and so did not have any legal representation.

But this did not deter brave Mrs McCourt who decided to take actions into her own hands. The grandmother-of-one took the bold decision to go up against the two barristers herself and ask questions on behalf of her family.

And following her legal representation, Durham coroner, Andrew Tweddle launched a criticism into the police actions which led to Lenny, 44, dying in the cramped cage. Mr Tweddle also praised Mrs McCourt's quizzing of the officers she blames for Lenny's death, saying she had 'missed her vocation' as a lawyer.

Mum-of-two, and grandmother to Logan, one, Mrs McCourt is married to Lenny's brother Gene, 49.

Lenny was the youngest of five brothers and the close-knit family was left devastated when the 44-year-old, who had been drinking heavily, died on his way to the cells at Peterlee Police Station on the afternoon of Saturday, September 11, 2010.

Mrs McCourt, from Eastlea, Seaham, said: 'I thought the world of Lenny. We were the same age and went to the same school. 'We always got on well together.'

Mrs McCourt describes 6ft 3in tall Lenny as a 'gentle giant' but accepted he had 'issues' and could sometimes drink to excess.

It was while he had been drinking that neighbours called police following a disturbance outside his home in Seaham.

Police arrived at his house and told the hearing they thought they had managed to calm him down. But he followed them out to their car and the officers claimed that he became aggressive.

After spraying him twice with pepper spray, two male officers and one woman special officer bundled him into a van.

There then followed a catalogue of errors by police which has led to three officers facing disciplinary action.

Mr Tweddle called for a review into the size of cages in the back of police vans where prisoners are held, after Mrs McCourt insisted that the inquest jury inspect the van Lenny was put into.

Other errors highlighted by Mr Tweddle included a failure to tell Lenny why he was being arrested, a failure to keep him under observation while he was being transported to Peterlee and a failure to apply prompt medical action aid when they realised he was unconscious.

The jury decided that Lenny died of a heart attack in the van, Mr Tweddle added: 'I think anyone who saw the footage at Peterlee police station could not fail to be moved by the fact that for what seemed like an eternity, nothing seemed to be done. 'I found it distressing to see officers standing with their hands on their hips for a considerable period of time, an inappropriate length of time in my view.'

Mrs McCourt said she felt vindicated by the coroner's comments after spending three weeks questioning witnesses on behalf of her family.

Mrs McCourt said: 'I have always been determined to get at the truth and I volunteered to speak on behalf of the family. 'I have never been into a hearing of that nature before but I picked it up as I went along.

'I learned what I was doing wrong, instead of asking questions of witnesses I was making statements to them. 'But I learnt how to phrase questions properly as the hearing progressed.

'I tried to detach myself emotionally, but it is very difficult when you are discussing the last moments of a much-loved brother in law.

'It was horrible watching the video footage of him lying there. The police officers were just standing around.

'I feel an element of relief now it is over, although there is also a lot of sadness and a lot of anger. 'I hope the police officers are severely dealt with.

'I am particularly pleased that the coroner highlighted how cramped the police custody cage in the van was. 'My husband, who has been a huge help to me, said he wouldn't have put a dog in it.

'The police lawyers didn't see any need for the van to be produced at the inquest for the jury to inspect but I insisted that it was brought to Crook. 'And they saw for themselves the cramped cages in which Lenny was thrown.

'If this inquest can prevent another family going through the heartache we have been put through then Lenny will not have died in vain.'

Mrs McCourt has stressed that she is not against the police and says she used to attend local Police and Community Together meetings.

She said: 'At the time there was a drugs problem on our estate and I spoke out at the meetings and worked with police.

'I am not afraid to speak up when I think something is wrong and there was something very wrong about Lenny's death.'

She also said that the birth of her grandson, Logan, was a huge comfort at a time when the family had been through so much.

She said: 'Gene and Lenny's mother's funeral took place exactly a year after Lenny's.

'My dad died earlier this year, and Gene and Lenny's brother Dave was killed in a motor-cycle accident in North Yorkshire.

'All this was happening when we were preparing for Lenny's inquest, but in a way it has made us stronger as a family.

'And Logan's birth has been a ray of sunshine amongst all the doom and gloom. 'I adore my grandson, he's the apple of my eye.'

A spokesman for Durham Police said: 'Durham Constabulary continues to extend its condolences to Mr McCourt’s family on their loss.

'We co-operated fully with an IPCC independent investigation into the circumstances leading to Mr McCourt’s death and we accept the findings of the inquest.

'The formal verdict recognises the officers involved acted lawfully throughout this incident.

'On the afternoon of September 11, 2010, we responded to a 999 call from a resident of Ash Crescent who was fearful for herself and her child because someone was out in the street who appeared to be very drunk, behaving violently and trying to break into a vacant house.

'Mr McCourt, unknown to any of the attending officers, had a serious underlying heart condition not previously known to himself or his family.

'The constabulary will now move towards misconduct procedures for the members of staff principally involved.

'The issues identified in these reviews, and the report of HM Coroner, will be addressed in due course and the family of Mr McCourt will be involved in this process.'

Original report here

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