Prison death anonymity orders upheld

James McDonnell died in Maghaberry Prison in March 1996

James McDonnell died in Maghaberry Prison in March 1996

By Niall McCracken

A COURT has upheld the decision to grant anonymity to prison officers who gave evidence during the inquest of an inmate who died in Maghaberry prison more than 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.

Following an inquest last May the 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.

Speaking when the inquest closed Mr McDonnell’s mother Elizabeth previously told The Detail that her family had fought for almost twenty years to get the truth.

During Mr McDonnell’s inquest a number of witnesses – all serving or retired prison officers – successfully applied to the coroner for anonymity and screening.

The decision was made after risk assessments on the level of threat to prison officers from dissident republican and dissident loyalist terrorists were provided by an independent body to the Coroner’s Court. The documents claimed that if anonymity was not granted the risk could substantially increase.

However the members of Mr McDonnell’s family who attended the inquest daily were permitted to see the screened witnesses. The witnesses were therefore screened only from the general public and members of the media and their names were substituted with letters of the alphabet.

As previously reported by The Detail the mother of Mr McDonnell won the right to challenge the decision of Northern Ireland’s most senior coroner, John Leckey, to grant anonymity to the prison officers who gave evidence at her son’s inquest.

In October last year Mr Justice Treacy granted leave to seek a judicial review of the coroner’s decision.

However almost exactly a year to the day since the inquest ruling, Mr Justice Treacy this morning dismissed the application and said the effectiveness of the inquest had not been undermined by the decision to grant anonymity.

He said: "The effectiveness of the inquest was not undermined on account of the decisions to grant anonymity and screening. The verdict is not challenged and has been publicly welcomed by very experienced senior counsel appearing on behalf of the next of kin. Unless the inquest is to be quashed and a new inquest ordered I question the utility of these proceedings brought at very considerable expense to the parties and the public purse.”

Following Mr McDonnell’s inquest the coroner asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to investigate if a criminal offence had been committed.

It is understood that this was 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 case was “still under consideration”.