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19 July 2012

A police thug and an unlawful killing

Simon Harwood has been acquitted of manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson but questions remain, says David Allen Green.

By David Allen Green

PC Simon Harwood, a thug, has today been found not guilty by a jury of the manslaughter of Ian Tomlinson, even though another jury had previously found that Tomlinson had been unlawfully killed.

The Coroner’s Inquest had previously decided as follows:

Time, place and circumstances at or in which injury was sustained:

Mr Tomlinson was on his way home from work on 1st April 2009 during the G20 demonstrations.

He was fatally injured at around 19.20 in Royal Exchange Buildings (the Passage), near to the junction with Cornhill, London EC3. This was as a result of a baton strike from behind and a push in the back by a police officer which caused Mr Tomlinson to fall heavily.

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Both the baton strike and the push were excessive and unreasonable.

As a result, Mr Tomlinson suffered internal bleeding which led to his collapse within a few minutes and his subsequent death.

At the time of the strike and the push, Mr Tomlinson was walking away from the police line. He was complying with police instructions to leave Royal Exchange Buildings (the Passage). He posed no threat.

Conclusion of the jury as to the death:

Unlawful killing.

The coroner’s jury were not permitted to name the officer and, somewhat counter-intuitively, a verdict of “unlawful killing” is not itself a finding of any kind of homicide.

So is it appropriate to describe Harwood as a thug?  It is certainly a fair comment on the video evidence of his conduct on that day.  It also covers, in my view, his own admissions at the trial, for example:

Asked by Mark Dennis QC, prosecuting, whether he accepted he had gone “over the top” having seen footage of Tomlinson walking away from a line of police trying to clear a pedestrian passageway in London’s City district, Harwood agreed. He said: “Watching the video, yes, I probably have.”

And it certainly is consistent with his five lever-arch folder disciplinary record, which was withheld from the jury. His defenders who maintain “nothing was proved” are right, and so I make no accusation that he has incurred any criminal or disciplinary liability; but there is no doubt to me Harwood can be described as a thug simply on the evidence that is publicly available.  Just watch the video.

However, an allegation of thuggery is certainly not the same as an allegation of homicide, and today’s verdict makes it clear that Harwood cannot be described as a killer to the criminal standard of proof.  A more competent prosecutor might have made sure that a prosecution for common assault could have been brought as an alternative to manslaughter.  But the CPS left the decision too long until such a charge was impossible because of the six-month limitation period.

There were always going to be problems with the disputed medical evidence in this case, especially as the first post mortem was inadequate.  In view of this, the criminal liability of Harwood in respect of the incident should not have rested on the “all or nothing” attempt of a manslaughter prosecution.  Yet again someone dies and no police officer is convicted of anything in relation to the death.

A civil action may now be mounted against Harwood and the police.  There also seems no reason why there cannot be a “Health and Safety” prosecution against the Metropolitan police for even allowing a thug like Harwood loose in a public order situation (similar to the prosecution brought following the death of Jean Charles de Menezes).  And public disciplinary proceedings are to be brought against Harwood.

In the meantime, a man died by reason of what a coroner’s jury ruled was an unlawful killing, and the thug who struck him continues still to be a police officer. 

But it was not manslaughter.



David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman