19 December 1997

The inquest into the death of Dennis Stevens at HMP Dartmoor on 18 October 1995 is to resume at the County Hall in Exeter on Tuesday 16 December 1997 when the jury will retire to consider their verdict after receiving direction from the coroner.

Those directions have been 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. 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 has since been 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, the deceased 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 now forbidden verdict of unlawful killing.

The family of Mr Stevens - his mother, his brothers and sisters, and the mother of his children – do not intend to be present at the resumption of the inquest, since they do not consider the verdicts that are now to be left to the jury can allow justice to be done or to be seen to be done as to how the deceased came by his death. They believe that in denying the jury the opportunity to consider the verdict of unlawful killing, the coroner has in effect usurped the function of the jury, albeit with the blessing of the Divisional court and the Court of Appeal. As a result, the outcome of the inquest has been subverted and rendered into a travesty of justice.

Velma Knight, Mr Stevens sister said, 'If it was discovered that an animal had died in the barbaric way in which my brother has, there would be a public outcry. Somebody would be held responsible and no doubt punished. The message I get from the authorities is that blacks don’t matter. Encouraged and protected by the so-called justice system that we are supposed to turn to when in need of help the perpetrators continue their commission to kill the blacks’ His mother Mrs Stevens added, 'There was no justice, no justice for us Afro Caribbean’s. We are like foxes and the government is like horsemen hunting for their prey. We are classed as nothing. Seeing and hearing the 'authority’ say that my son caused his own death made my heart bleed. I can’t understand how the government can call us the bad ones when they are the ones who murder and get a way with it….they are inhumane…my son Dennis told the prison officers to let go of him …but they still held him down naked on a concrete floor for over 20 minutes, then put him in a body belt, no mercy was shown, they left him to die. From the inquest to the High Court NO JUSTICE. I think the Government should take notice and do something about the cruel killings that are happening on the streets, in prison and police custody, because if this was happening amongst the Europeans there would be a media uproar…there is no end to the suffering,’ 

Helen Shaw, co-director of INQUEST said 'Dennis Stevens was the victim of the unacceptable practices which occur within the Prison system and now his family is the victim of the manifest inadequacies of the legal system for investigating such deaths. The terrible ordeal faced by his family in trying to establish the truth about his death and to call those responsible to account further underlines the need for a radical overhaul of the whole system. As Lord Woolf, the Master of the Rolls said in the Court of Appeal on 9 December the current inquest system is inadequate when it comes to such complex cases. This is especially so in a case like this which raises serious questions about state accountability. Dennis Stevens’ death in such cruel, inhuman and degrading circumstances warrants more serious and broad ranging scrutiny than an inquest can ever provide. It has long been clear from our work with bereaved families after deaths in custody that black people are disproportionately represented amongst those who die after violent and brutal incidents. The Government must take action to reform both the investigation system and the brutal practices that too often lead to such tragic and unnecessary loss of life.’ Peter Courtier said: Bristol Racial Equality Council are outraged and dismayed that Dennis Stevens family have been denied justice. Those who attended the inquest heard direct evidence that Dennis was unlawfully restrained by prison officers at Dartmoor Prison and then died in the most degrading and humiliating circumstances whilst in a body belt. This is yet another example of a black family facing the anguish of a tragic death in custody and the denial of justice by the current legal system’.