Jury finds prisoner died after officers used excessive force

Maghaberry Prison

Maghaberry Prison

By Niall McCracken

AN inmate who died of a heart attack after being restrained by wardens was failed by the prison system, an inquest jury has today ruled.

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

During the inquest the legal team for the McDonnell family argued that the neck injury suffered by Mr McDonnell during the altercation led to stress that contributed to his fatal heart attack later that day.

Speaking to The Detail his mother Elizabeth McDonnell said 17 years was too long to wait for answers surrounding her son’s death.

Mr McDonnell was found unconscious in a punishment cell at Maghaberry on March 30 1996. At 4pm medical assistance had been called but fifteen minutes later Mr McDonnell was pronounced dead. Earlier that day he had been transferred to Maghaberry from Crumlin Road prison as the 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.

The inquest heard that Mr McDonnell had wanted to be transferred to a single cell upon his arrival at Maghaberry.

Senior Coroner John Leckey said: “This was the catalyst for an altercation with a prison officer that led to the control and restraint procedures being carried out by a number of prison officers.”

Karen Quinlivan QC, counsel for the McDonnell family, said this had resulted in the 36-year-old being grabbed by the throat resulting in a neck injury causing him “considerable stress and contributing to his eventual heart attack”.

Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS) counsel Patrick Lyttle QC said that as Mr McDonnell had an underlying heart condition and there was no connection between him being physically restrained and his heart attack. Mr Lyttle described Mr McDonnell’s death as a tragic event that “could have happened at anytime for any reason” and that the prison service was not at fault.

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.

The family’s solicitor Padraig O’Muirigh said: “We will be contacting the Director of Public Prosecutions about these findings and the McDonnell family will be considering taking civil proceedings against the Northern Ireland Prison Service."

Speaking to The Detail his mother Elizabeth McDonnell said: “Seventeen years is a long time, I’m relieved and I’m glad that we got the decision that we were waiting on and that it was unanimous. There can be no doubt that prison service treated Jim badly.

“It was an emotional day for all the family, but the jury agreed on every point to our satisfaction. It’s hard to put it into words, it was such a long wait for an inquest and I’m just glad it’s all over now.”

In a statement to The Detail a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Prison Service said it would give consideration to the findings of the jury.