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Thursday, July 19, 2012 

No alarms and no surprises redux.

Hearing today of the verdict in the Ian Tomlinson case, it was difficult not to be reminded of Blackstone's formulation. William Blackstone, the 18th century author of the Commentary on the Laws of England, had it that it was better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.

This is not to say that PC Simon Harwood was guilty of anything more on the 1st of April 2009 than common assault. The jury more than understandably decided that it was not proven beyond reasonable doubt that Harwood caused the manslaughter of Tomlinson, and we have to respect that decision. You really can't envy those chosen to serve on this particular case, thanks to the incompetence of Freddy Patel, the pathologist who carried out the first autopsy on Tomlinson. They had to reach their decision based on conflicting accounts: Patel continues to maintain that Tomlinson died of natural causes, coincidentally just a matter of minutes after he was pushed over and struck by Harwood, while the two other doctors who subsequently carried out a re-examination decided the cause of death was internal bleeding caused by trauma associated with a blow to the abdomen. The material that would have established the cause beyond all doubt was poured away by Patel, who when giving evidence continued to insist that the bloody fluids found within Tomlinson's stomach cavity were ascites stained with blood, rather than just blood. The Crown Prosecution Service's initial decision not to bring charges was justified on this irreconcilable difference of medical opinions. The jury was not told that Patel had been suspended last year by the General Medical Council after similar failings in the autopsy he carried out on Sally White, who he found had died of natural causes. Her body had been discovered in the house belonging to Anthony Hardy, who later pleaded guilty to the murder of White and two other women.

In fairness to Patel, he wasn't aware when he conducted the post-mortem of what had happened to Tomlinson just a few minutes before he died, the footage not being uncovered until it was sent to the Guardian a week after the protests. New evidence was also presented during the trial which hadn't been given during the inquest, with trauma specialist Alastair Wilson hypothesising that the internal bleeding could have started before Tomlinson came into contact with Harwood. All the same, it still raises the question of why it was decided that Patel's suspension was considered to be prejudicial, and so withheld from the jury. It may not have made any difference, just as it's doubtful that had they known of Harwood's chequered disciplinary record, including his resignation from the Met following a road rage incident and subsequent rejoining of the force with Surrey police it would have changed their decision. When it was a majority decision of 10 to 2 though, after four days of deliberations, it could potentially have led to a retrial instead of a not guilty verdict.

All this considered, it was clearly the right decision by the CPS to change their initial decision and bring the manslaughter charges following the unlawful killing verdict of the inquest's jury. While both verdicts were delivered under the same burden of proof, beyond reasonable doubt, there's clearly a massive difference between a jury deciding a police officer was guilty of unintentionally killing a man through inappropriate use of force and a jury deciding that the police officer should potentially go to prison for doing so. Harwood's behaviour, though reprehensible as there was no reason whatsoever for him to push Tomlinson, would have been unlikely to have done lasting damage to someone who was in good health. Indeed, as I previously noted, it's a wonder there weren't far worse injuries on the day considering the number of protesters who were hit repeatedly on the head with batons.

In this respect, as much as Harwood on the day was lashing out anyone who got in his way following the humiliation he felt after failing to arrest a man who vandalised a police van, Duncan Campbell is right to lay the blame at the feet of those who authorised the completely counter-productive tactic of kettling protesters, to say nothing of the storming of the Climate Camp, later ruled to have been an abuse of power. Regardless of whether there had been violence or not, and much of it on the day was limited to the smashing of windows and spraying of grafitti rather than attacks on police, who were in any case mostly watching as it went on, officers had been briefed that a bunch of black flag wielding anarchists were coming from across Europe to lay waste to the City, while senior officers were telling the media of how ready they were for just such an eventuality.

Unlike some others, I'm not so sure that this verdict will make police officers feel that they're above the law: while it's true that there has still not been a officer convicted of murder or manslaughter while on duty since 1986, it only hasn't in this case thanks to the disagreement between pathologists. With recording equipment now ubiquitous, the chances of abuse going unchallenged have also never been slighter. Just as the police are so keen on recording us, so on protests from now on we should be recording their every move. And considering what's happened, they can hardly complain.

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