Inquest into death of Maghera prisoner to resume on Thursday

Paul Somerville
Paul Somerville

A chief superintendent oversaw a major review of the circumstances surrounding the death of a prisoner who escaped from a custody van in Maghera.

Experts agree on how Paul Somerville, 21, managed to exit a police “cell on wheels” in Maghera in January last year. He died in hospital three days after sustaining serious head injuries.

His inquest has been adjourned until Thursday to allow the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to instruct lawyers after evidence was presented that the secure unit’s door was faulty.

Senior coroner John Leckey said: “For some reason the PSNI had not picked up that the inquest was scheduled to start yesterday.”

A jury has been selected to hear the case at Ballymena courthouse.

The trainee electrician somehow got out of the back of the police’s adapted Volkswagen van minutes after two officers picked him up at his house on Crewe Road to transport him back to Maghaberry Prison. The drugs offender had been recalled by parole authorities for a breach of a release licence.

A key question to be decided by the jury is how he exited the supposedly secure vehicle, after what his father said was probably a deliberate “spur of the moment” decision to try to flee.

Following a delay this morning Mr Leckey said: “There are a number of experts who examined the police vehicle and one good thing about what happened this morning is that the experts were able to speak among themselves.

“They all are in agreement and it has been agreed that Dr Emerson Callender will be spokesperson on their behalf. He will explain the technical aspects of the door, the considered opinion of the experts why Mr Somerville was able to get out of what to all intents and purposes was a police cell on wheels.”

On the first day of the inquest on Monday, the jury heard that the internal door of the single cell in the back of the police vehicle was found to be faulty.

The fault was not identified before the incident, despite the locks being examined by mechanics days earlier at the request of a concerned officer.

While this erratic locking mechanism likely enabled Mr Somerville to get out of the cell, Mr Leckey was told that the prisoner, who police witnesses said had a history of drug use and violent encounters with officers, still had to get through a roll-up external door at the back of the vehicle to escape.

The coroner said today: “Following this incident, for the reasons that a prisoner was able to escape from a cell on wheels and also tragically die as a result of injuries, that resulted in a major internal review by PSNI under the chairmanship of a chief superintendent.”

The conclusions reached will be presented to the jury on Thursday.