A Maghera man who died after falling from a police custody van with a faulty cell door had probably attempted a spur-of-the-moment escape bid, his father has told an inquest.
Paul Somerville, 21, died in hospital three days after sustaining serious head injuries in the incident in his home town of Maghera in January last year.
The trainee electrician somehow exited the back of the police’s adapted Volkswagen van minutes after two PSNI officers picked him up at his house on Crewe Road to transport him back to Maghaberry prison.
The drugs offender had been recalled to custody by parole authorities for a breach of a release licence.
On the first day of an inquest hearing in Ballymena, Northern Ireland’s Senior Coroner John Leckey heard that the internal door of the single cell in the rear of the PSNI custody vehicle was subsequently found to be faulty.
The malfunction had not been identified prior to 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 offender’s parents Gwen and Desmond were both asked if they accepted that their son would have had to perform a deliberate act to exit the van, even if the internal cell door lock had broken.
They both acknowledged that was what the evidence pointed to.
“I would think it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, probably overcome by thought of going back (to prison), which was something he didn’t want to happen,” said Mr Somerville.
Mr Leckey asked him if his son would have thought he could have successfully gone on the run.
“I don’t believe for one minute that he was thinking long term, or logically,” his father replied.
“It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing that he didn’t believe what was happening to him.”
Mr Somerville said he held “pretty strong views” on the use of the cell van to transport his son the 40 plus miles to Maghaberry.
“I feel he was put into a cage - one you wouldn’t put an animal into - to take him 40-odd miles,” he said.
“He could have been sitting comfortably in the back of a van which had happened before. Then this wouldn’t have happened.”
Mrs Somerville insisted her son was calm when officers came to the house to collect him.
“At no stage was he agitated or upset,” she said.
Mr Leckey had asked if her son had the potential to “fly off the handle”.
“He would be impulsive at times,” she replied.
Mrs Somerville said her son was generous and caring and loved by many people.
“We are so distraught over his death and will never get over it,” she added.
Later a constable told the court how he had been in the van a week prior to the incident and, as he and colleagues drove out of the station, the door of the empty cell flung open.
He said he wasn’t certain whether this was due to a fault or simply because it had not been closed properly.
Five days later the constable mentioned it to the officer with responsibility for vehicle maintenance in Maghera station. The van coincidentally had been sent for service the same day so the officer rang through to the PSNI garage where it was being worked on and requested that the lock was checked.
Mechanic Derek Howell told the court that his boss had examined the lock while he looked on. He said the mechanism was greased and an attempt was made to straighten the door slightly, but he said neither of them found a fault.
“We tried the door at the end of the process and the door latches seemed to be working,” he said.
Mr Leckey explained that subsequent expert examinations had found an “erratic fault” that meant the lock sometimes worked and sometimes did not.
He said that would have given a “false sense of reassurance” to anyone who had tested the lock and found it to be functioning.
Dr David McNeill, who was working at medical centre close to the scene of the fatal incident, rushed to Mr Somerville’s aid.
He questioned the input of police officers in the immediate aftermath, claiming it took too long for him to be told that the victim may have potentially fallen from a moving vehicle.
Having initially thought he was dealing with a collapse or fitting incident, he had moved Mr Somerville prior to being given the information by police.
“To be honest I probably wouldn’t have moved the patient if I had known patient had fallen from moving vehicle,” he said, explaining the potential of spinal injury.
With concerns about what had unfolded, he told the court how he had warned the police officer.
“I remember telling the officer that he had better have dotted the Is and crossed the Ts because this didn’t look good,” he said.
The doctor added: “I did not think that Mr Somerville would survive and I know he was in the custody of police at the time, so I knew gravity of situation for both him and the police.”
Michael Egan, representing the policeman and policewoman who were in the custody van when the incident occurred, claimed there was a general sense of confusion as to what had happened and insisted the officers had also been initially unsure as to what had unfolded.
He later pointed out that the officers would have been unable to see the cell from the front of the vehicle as a steel partition obscured it from view.
While Mr Egan was appearing on behalf of the two officers at the request of the Police Federation, the PSNI as an organisation was not legally represented at the hearing. Mr Leckey said he considered that “unusual and surprising”.
The inquest continues on Tuesday when the authors of the reports on the lock are set to give evidence.