Coroner refers prison death to Public Prosecution Service

James McDonnell died in Maghaberry Prison in March 1996

James McDonnell died in Maghaberry Prison in March 1996

By Niall McCracken

NORTHERN Ireland’s most Senior Coroner John Leckey has asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate if a criminal offence was committed after an inmate died in Maghaberry Prison 17 years ago.

James Carlisle McDonnell (36) from Antrim died in the jail in March 1996 shortly after an incident with officers in which he was grabbed by the neck.

During an inquest hearing earlier this month a jury found that the neck injury suffered by Mr McDonnell during the altercation led to stress that contributed to his fatal heart attack later that day.

It is understood that this is the first known case involving the coroner referring a death in custody to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS).

In a statement to The Detail a spokesperson for the PPS said: “The Senior Coroner, Mr Leckey, today confirmed that he is referring the death of James Carlisle McDonnell to the PPS pursuant to the provisions of Section 35(3) of the Justice (NI) Act 2002.”

The legislation states that the coroner must send a written report to to the Director of Public Prosecutions, Barra McGrory QC, if he believes that an offence may have been committed in the circumstances surrounding a death.

Mr McDonnell was found unconscious in a punishment cell at Maghaberry Prison on March 30 1996.

At 4pm medical assistance was called but 15 minutes later Mr McDonnell was pronounced dead. Earlier that day he had been transferred to Maghaberry from Crumlin Road Prison as the Crumlin site was closing.

During the course of a four week inquest the jury heard that on the day of the fatal incident Mr McDonnell had received news that his father had died.

During the inquest hearing the Coroner John Leckey told the jury that it had to consider whether his heart attack was spontaneous or was triggered by one or any of the events that had taken place that day.

After deliberating for four hours the jury found that Mr McDonnell had been physically restrained by prison officers as a result of violent behaviour. However the jury concluded that the control and restraint procedures had not been carried out correctly.

The jury questioned the level of training given to prison officers in physically restraining inmates.

A foreman for the jury stated: “It is probable based on the evidence that Mr McDonnell during the initial restraint procedure was grabbed by the neck and sustained the injuries recorded at post mortem.”

The jury outlined a number of factors that contributed to Mr McDonnell suffering a fatal heart attack – the initial restraint, neck compression, the control and restraint as carried out in this instance, underlying heart conditions and emotional stress.

The jury found that prison officers had used excessive force and were not trained in the application of applying discretion when using control and restraint procedures. The jury concluded that the prison service failed in its duty of care to Mr McDonnell.

In a previous article Mr McDonnell’s mother Elizabeth told The Detail that 17 years was too long to wait for the truth.