19 December 1997

The inquest into the death of Dennis Stevens at Dartmoor Prison on 18 October 1995 returned a verdict of accidental death today after receiving direction from the coroner that they could choose between accidental death or open verdict. Those directions were the subject of a determined but ultimately unsuccessful challenge on behalf of the deceased’s family before the Divisional Court and the Court of Appeal in London over the last month.

Helen Shaw Co-director of INQUEST said: 'This verdict underlines the inadequacy of the inquest as a forum for the proper and thorough examination of controversial deaths in custody. The narrow remit of the inquest does not allow evidence to be heard about previous deaths or the verdict to reflect the seriously disturbing evidence about the nature of the restraint. This family has been denied any kind of justice by an antiquated and utterly inappropriate process that leaves them feeling betrayed by the British justice system.'

The inquest was adjourned on 14 November 1997, after evidence had been heard from some 61 witnesses, where the coroner accepted an invitation on behalf of the Prison Service to withdraw the verdict of unlawful killing from the jury. That decision was upheld in the face of the challenge on behalf of the deceased’s family, first by the Divisional court on 20 November 1997, and then by the Court of Appeal on 10 December 1997.

On the undisputed medical evidence heard by the jury, Dennis Stevens would not have died but for the physical restraint in the prone face down position in which he was held for a period of some twenty minutes or more before he was placed in the body belt in which he was found dead 24 hours later. Moreover, the jury heard ample evidence of fact to conclude that the restraint was unlawful and dangerous and/or grossly negligent, such as to found the forbidden verdict of unlawful killing.