Inquest into Maghera man’s prison van death abandoned

Desmond and Gwen Somerville, parents of Paul Somerville, 21, leave Ballymena coroners court. Paul Faith/PA Wire
Desmond and Gwen Somerville, parents of Paul Somerville, 21, leave Ballymena coroners court. Paul Faith/PA Wire

The parents of a prisoner who died falling from a police custody van with a faulty cell door have criticised Northern Ireland’s senior coroner after an inquest was abandoned to allow the vehicle to be examined.

It will be tracked down then inspected by the firm which installed the secure unit. Coroner John Leckey said it was agreed there was no alternative to discharging the jury - after a full day’s evidence - when fresh questions arose over whether the doors were effective. A new inquest will be held as soon as possible.

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

His father Desmond and mother Gwen claimed the coroner should have pondered the legal issues earlier.

Their solicitor John Macmanus said: “They are very disappointed that the jury has been discharged. Prior to this the inquest had been listed and at a very late stage it was cancelled.

“The issue that has been raised this morning in relation to the design of the cell van was within the (inquest) papers which the family take the view should have been considered before now. It appears that that was something that the coroner should have been aware of.

“They are anxious to see that the inquest is re-listed as soon as possible as this has been a very distressing time for both of them and their extended family.”

Mr Leckey said the Police Ombudsman’s office will inquire where the custody vehicle is. It will be secured and arrangements made for engineering experts plus a representative of the English firm (Coleman Milne) that installed the cell to carry out an inspection in Northern Ireland.

Mr Leckey told Mr Somerville’s relatives at Ballymena courthouse: “I recognise that a decision of this nature does not happen too often but can add to the distress the bereaved family feels.

“In consultation with the various legal representatives this morning...I think it is agreed that there was no alternative.”

He added: “I hope this will happen quickly.”

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 a 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.

A spokeswoman for the coroner said: “Further issues arose as to whether the doors were effective.

“Mr Leckey has directed a technical examination of the vehicle be carried out, involving a representative from England who carried out modification of the police vehicle.”

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 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.

A PSNI chief superintendent has chaired a major internal review of the circumstances surrounding the death.