by Marcia RiggFebruary 2018

I could never have imagined that almost ten years after his death I’d still be fighting for justice for my brother, Sean Rigg.

Sean, a 40-year-old black British musician, apparently became unwell and suddenly collapsed and died in police custody in the summer of 2008. Practically naked wearing only speedos and handcuffs, he lay on the cold concrete floor at the entrance of Brixton custody suite.  Sean died on camera inside a cramped caged holding cell, surrounded by, and at the feet of, 5-6 police officers.

Towards the end of what I call a ‘cut throat battle’, I have learnt that true justice is unlikely, probably impossible. I mean… seriously, you couldn’t make my story up! On the other hand, deaths and stories like mine re-occur again and again.  But why? I mean… we are talking about a death here, and that’s very serious is it not?

In the decade that I’ve fought for answers, I have faced an endlessly lengthy and unbalanced justice system. And despite a string of reviews, inquiries, set of recommendations calling for changes to police conduct, a damning inquest jury verdict, and a mass media campaign, no officer or institution has been held accountable for Sean’s death.  

This has led me and many others to feel that there is no real justice or penalty for state wrongdoing. This destroys public trust and fuels resentment among Black communities who feel targeted and harshly treated. My story is just one of many. Our family has experienced unimaginable trauma, disappointment and exhaustion.

Believe me, I know what I’m talking about. Access to Sean’s body and the autopsy process was alarming. This included seeing injuries to Sean’s face that my family were not told about following a state autopsy. Seven weeks after Sean’s death we were given an unrecognisable and badly decomposed body for burial.

To top things off, when we attempted to get legal representation for the inquest hearing, we faced an intrusive legal aid means testing process, which resulted in our family being asked to contribute £21,000. We were being asked to pay this sum to find out how Sean died.

I hugely benefitted from legal representation during the inquest as I came up against a team of five state lawyers. These included lawyers representing the police, ambulance and other health services. Rather than helping me understand the reason Sean died, I felt that they were more interested in protecting their interests.

The jury found, amongst other grave issues, that the ‘prone’ restraint applied by officers for up to 8 minutes was excessive and unreasonable and that the actions or inactions of both the mental health trust and arresting officers on the night contributed to Sean’s death.

Events with Sean captured on CCTV and audio at the police station is dangerously worrying and officers were clearly disbelieved by the jury. The officers’ evidence included a false account of a custody sergeant checking on Sean while he was held in the back of the van in the station yard.

The inquest was a key high point in my family’s battle for justice. Its damning conclusions on the police’s conduct forced the IPCC (now the IOPC) and the police to treat Sean’s case as an avoidable death. It also meant the officers faced the kind of scrutiny that they should have experienced four years’ earlier, when the IPCC completely failed our family and the public - as was found by an unprecedented independent review of the IPCC investigation (the Casale Review). The police were forced into an apology and some reforms have also followed, such as the installation of cameras in the back of police vans in the London area.  

But ultimately, in December 2017 the Crown Prosecution Service responded to a second challenge I made under the Victims Right to Review scheme by stating that a criminal jury would not likely convict any of the officers of any offence in connection with Sean’s death due to insufficient evidence.  No officer has ever been charged for the death of Sean. We did have the first perjury trial of its kind in the UK, albeit no conviction, but hey, that’s another story.

There have been excessive delays to Sean’s case, and no sanctions for criminal wrongdoing even when officers were caught giving false evidence. All an officer has to say is that they ‘can’t remember’ the details. Lessons are never learned, while unlimited and unnecessary costs for state legal representation and investigations are incurred by the public purse. Case study after case study, the nonsensical result and the justice scales never balance.

I am currently waiting to hear if there will be any disciplinary charges, almost 10 years after Sean’s death, but from my and others’ experience, I have little faith in any such proceedings.

Nonetheless, I am forever grateful for the help I received from the public, community activists and INQUEST in grinding down the legal barriers. INQUEST provided huge support in helping me and my lawyers navigate the legal processes and fight for policy changes. I had a great team of lawyers through INQUEST, some of which are renowned legal experts from Hickman & Rose Solicitors, Garden Court, Doughty Street and Matrix Chambers.

They and lawyers representing Seni Lewis’ family, Bhatt Murphy, helped us to make the case for an unprecedented review into deaths in police custody, launched by the former Home Secretary, Theresa May. We gave our testimonies about our relatives’ deaths, and it was our experiences which helped to shape many of the recommendations made by the Review to the government. 

Working closely with INQUEST has given me real strength. I have met countless families through the family forums and contributed to family listening days. By participating in these days, I have helped shape professional and MPs’ understanding of people in mental health crisis, and of bereaved families’ treatment.

I have become an activist, public speaker, writer, and expert panelist on issues of mental health and deaths in custody.

I also became the voice of the INQUEST skills and support toolkit, alongside Tony Herbert, father of James who died following restraint by police officers. The toolkit builds families’ skills and better prepares them for the inquest. By adding my voice to the toolkit, and in my role as Co-chair for the United Family and Friends Campaign, I am now able to help other families struggling for justice.

Yes, my life did change overnight. But I was encouraged and supported by so many brilliant people during my wretched journey. I regret none of it and what I have achieved.

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I am now organising a Hands Up Fundraising Gala Dinner’ for INQUEST Lawyers Group, to support the work of INQUEST, which has done so much to help families like mine.

If you like what INQUEST does you can donate here. Every penny helps because the steps to justice are steep, but the truth must always prevail.