The inquest on newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson and the background to the incident that led to his death in April 2009 has determined PC Simon Harwood caused the man's death.
More than two years after he collapsed and died in the street, a jury at City of London Coroner’s Court ruled the 47 year old newspaper vendor had been killed unlawfully.
On April 1, 2009, Mr Tomlinson was walking home in London when he became caught up in the G20 protests which led to the police coming in for severe criticism over the way they dealt with demonstrators. The criticism and controversy were nowhere greater than two incidents in which police officers were filmed assaulting people. In the less serious incident, a sergeant slapped a protester in the face, the diminutive 35 year old Nicola Fisher, before striking her twice across the back of her leg with his baton. He was tried for and acquitted of this assault, the stipendiary magistrate having accepted his claim that he was in mortal fear of a woman half his size who was walking away from him.
Ian Tomlinson was similarly assaulted, being pushed violently from behind by PC Simon Harwood. After being helped up, he walked off only to collapse and die shortly afterwards.
It is not only the death of Mr Tomlinson that has been mired in controversy but the resultant legal proceedings. There were no less than three autopsies carried out on the victim, and the original coroner, Paul Matthews, was replaced by a senior circuit judge, Peter Thornton QC. This may have been because some people in high places have long memories, and did not want to see a repeat of the disgraceful Liddle Towers affair.
In 1976, 39 year old Towers was arrested using excessive force outside a night club in Gateshead, near Newcastle Upon Tyne in the North East of England. He was alleged to have been beaten by no less than 8 police officers. After being detained overnight he could hardly move, and died 3 weeks later. An inquest returned a verdict of “justifiable homicide," but after a challenge by the Attorney-General, a second inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure. No police officer was disciplined in connection with his death, but that was before Joe Public and protesters in particular routinely carried around video enabled mobile phones in their pockets.
The Tomlinson inquest was actually opened the week after his death but was adjourned pending further investigations. This procedure is not unusual, but the apparently excessive delay in this case was caused by a number of factors including conflicting evidence as to the cause of death. It was resumed on March 28 this year.
Although Ian Tomlinson was an alcoholic who was suffering from disease of the liver, and could conceivably have dropped dead at any time, there was no excusing PC Harwood’s assault, and his performance in the witness box (on the stand) was considered lamentable. There was also the issue of the competence or otherwise of the original pathologist, Dr Freddie Patel. He is now suspended due to concerns over his performance in others cases; it was his opinion that Mr Tomlinson had died from a heart attack; other, more credible experts, said the cause of death was internal bleeding.
After the inquest, the victim’s family thanked the jury, and said the verdict spoke for itself. PC Harwood could now face criminal charges. A previous attempt to bring charges against him was rebuffed, but it will be difficult for the authorities to avoid some sort of prosecution now, though it remains to be seen how vigorously the case will be pursued.