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11 November 2004 Edition

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Shot because they thought he was Irish - Met officers suspended after unlawful killing verdict


Harry Stanley

Harry Stanley

Up to 120 members of the Metropolitan Police force's firearms unit, SO19, refused to carry weapons for several days last week when two of their colleagues were suspended from duty for the killing of Harry Stanley. The strike was only called off after the intervention of Sir John Stevens, head of the Met, who said he had "sympathy" for the officers. His deputy, Sir Ian Blair, also waded into the argument by calling for the law to be changed so that, in effect, armed police officers will in future be immune from prosecution when they open fire on unarmed individuals. Writing in The Sun, Blair raged that "it should be a matter of shame for us all that they are let down when they most need our support".

The suspension of officers Neil Sharman and Kevin Fagan came as a result of the second inquest into the fatal shooting of 46-year old Scot Harry Stanley in Hackney, in 1999. On 29 October, the inquest jury, apparently not believing the account of the two that they "honestly" feared for their lives before they opened fire, found that Stanley had been unlawfully killed. The verdict places an implicit obligation on the Crown Prosecution Service to now bring charges against them; it has previously twice refused to do so on the grounds of "insufficient evidence". It also emerged during the course of the inquest that Sharman subsequently received promotion, despite his role in the killing. Stanley's widow Irene described hearing this news as like "being stabbed in the back".

The facts of Harry Stanley's killing are well known. On 22 September 1999, he was making his way home carrying a table leg in a blue plastic bag, which he had collected from his brother. He briefly called in to the Alexandra pub before continuing on his way. One of the customers in the pub, Clifford Willing, telephoned the police to say that an Irishman carrying a sawn-off shotgun in a bag had just left. In his statement to the police, which he repeated a month after the shooting, Willing said: "The package was wrapped so tightly that I could see that it was a sawn-off shotgun with the stock cut off. I could see the barrel and stock of the weapon and even the trigger. I would say it was double-barrelled and side by side." Later, at the first inquest into the killing, he then modified his account, telling the court that he had in fact only decided the bag contained a gun after a rumour to that effect had circulated amongst drinkers in the pub once Stanley had left the premises.

Nevertheless, the Met took him at his word without question. An armed response unit arrived in the area within minutes. According to police evidence, Sharman and Fagan approached Stanley from behind and shouted "Stop, armed police". As Stanley began to turn around he was shot twice, in the side of the head and through the hand, and died immediately. Although he was a matter of metres from his home, his family were not informed of his death for a further 18 hours, despite the fact that he was carrying several sources of identification on him. The family were also further traumatised by the fact that his body was left uncovered for several hours and blood at the scene was not cleared up.

Central to the killing, and the handling of it by the Met, the Police Complaints Authority and the CPS, was the perception that Stanley was Irish. Human rights campaigners in London have long argued that this perception was a prime reason for the extreme over-reaction of the Met, for the casual dismissal of the shooting by the authorities, and for the five-year struggle which the family has had to endure before even starting to receive some semblance of justice over their loss.

The original inquest into Stanley's killing was held in June 2002 and ended in chaos, when the Coroner of St Pancras Coroners' Court, Dr Stephen Chan, instructed the jury not to return a verdict of unlawful killing. Further serious questions were also raised over Chan's conduct after he had, in the family lawyer's words, attempted to "blacken" the dead man's name by ordering that Stanley's previous, spent, convictions be read out in court. Largely because of Dr Chan's conduct, the open verdict of the original inquest was overturned by the High Court in April this year, leaving the way open for the second inquest.

At the second inquest, Fagan told the court that as Stanley turned around he looked straight at the officer and adopted a "boxer's stance"; an interesting choice of phrase, as it is exactly the same wording as the police officer who killed unarmed IRA Volunteer Diarmuid O'Neill — also a member of SO19 — used when giving evidence at his inquest. In that case too, the coroner had intervened to prevent the jury from returning a verdict of unlawful killing.

When the verdict that Harry Stanley had been unlawfully killed was announced, the Home Secretary David Blunkett became involved, saying that he would be pressing for a change in the law so that police officers who kill unarmed members of the public would only face manslaughter rather than murder charges. His comments overlooked the fact that such charges are extremely rare; since 1990 there have been only two cases brought against police officers and there have been no convictions. In that time, around 30 unarmed people have been killed by the police.

One of those rare cases was James Ashley from St Leonards, East Sussex. In January 1998, Ashley was shot and killed by PC Chris Sherwood (who, according to some reports had had his gun licence temporarily withdrawn after a girlfriend accused him of violence) during a raid on his home. Sherwood was charged with murder, but in 2001 was acquitted — on the instruction of the judge. Nevertheless, within weeks the Chief Constable of East Sussex, Paul Whitehouse, was forced to resign after he repeatedly defended the actions of the officer. It seems highly unlikely, however, that either Sir John Stevens or his deputy will face a similar fate.


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