In the Custody of the State

  • 29 February 1984
  • test

Every three months, on average, someone dies in a police station or prison. The deaths are seldom natural, often violent and sometimes without a satisfactory explanation. Gene Kerrigan reports.

Martin Beatty had drunk three pints and six glasses, or there-abouts, of lager. It was a Sunday night, September 11 1983, and ten o'clock was long gone but Martin didn't want to leave the bar. He had been in the lounge of the Lome Hotel, Clanbrassil Street, Dundalk, since before 6pm and he wanted more drink. It was 11 pm now and his wife Audrey said she was going. home. Martin insisted on staying on. The bartenders said later that he drank from other people's drinks. He asked for a glass of water and was given one. "Please", he asked, "please give me a glass of Harp".

On leaving the pub Audrey Beatty went to get some chips on the way home to Linenhall Street. At some point, worried that Martin hadn't followed her home, she decided to go back to the hotel. It was about middnight when she got there. She tapped on the glass and they let her in. Martin wasn't there. He had been arrested by the gardai about half an hour before, she was told.

Audrey went to the phone and rang the Crescent garda station. Yes, Martin was there, said Garda Larry Witheroe. He had been taken in for causing trouble at the hotel. No, there was no point in Audrey coming down to the station, Martin was asleep in his cell. As soon as he sobered up he would be released.

Garda Witheroe later testified that he never told Audrey Beatty that Martin was asleep in the cell.

Audrey waited at home. At 3am there was a knock on the door. It was Sergeant Connolly from the Crescent station. Martin was dead.

It was coming up to 11.30pm that night when the bartenders in the Lome Hotel made a serious effort to put Martin Beatty out. There was a scuffle in the doorway and Martin and a bartender fell against a bicycle parked there. Martin was ejected. 'He began kicking the door and a glass panel broke. To avoid further damage the bartender opened the door and Martin Beatty came back in. The gardai were called.

The gardai were ten or fifteen minutes coming. Martin went out with them easily enough. When he saw the squad car he began struggling. He put his feet against the car in an effort to prevent the gardai putting him inside. At one point one of his legs was on top of the car. Another squad car was passing. The gardai saw the struggle and came to the aid of their colleagues. There were now four gardai present. Garda Calm Murray, who had arrested Martin, and Gardai Christy 0 'Gara, Joseph Fitzpatrick and Finbar Hickey.

Two gardai drew their batons and used them.

Martin Beatty was 27. He came from Clones in County Monaghan and had done his training as a painter and had been employed until the previous January. In July he had taken a handdful of anti-arthritic tablets and had to spend some time in hospital. There . was a suggestion that he had been sent to a psychiatric hospital but his own doctor confirmed that he had never been either an in-patient or outtpatient at a psychiatric hospital. It wasn't, say the family, a serious attempt at suicide and Martin seemed embarrassed by it.

Fine Gael TD Brendan McGahan knew Martin and describes him as "a fine lad" from a "law-abiding family" Martin had never been in trouble with the police. He had been thinking of emigrating to Australia, where two of his brothers lived. In August he began a job with AnCO.

On Wednesday 14 September his brother Frank received a telegram in Australia telling him of Martin's death. The next day he received a letter from Martin.

Martin Beatty arrived at the Crescent garda station at I.4Spm. He was wearing a very light and thin white jacket, white shirt, white shoes, white socks and a white belt on blue trousers. The belt was taken from him.

According to the gardai Martin was a bit of a nuisance. He kept demanding to be released and was banging on the flat metal plate in the door of the cell where food trays are placed. The cell, Cell 1, can be seen from the front desk where Garda Witheroe, who was station orderly· that night, was stationed.

Garda Witheroe said that he checked on Martin every fifteen minutes from 11.4Spm to lam. He said he repeateddly asked Martin to stop making noise. The Garda Siochana Code gives deetailed instructions on the need to keep prisoners under regular observation, particularly during the first few hours.

At 1am, according to Garda Witheeroe, Martin's banging became too much of a nuisance. He closed the door leading to the cells, "Because he was getting on my nerves".

Sergeant Connolly went to invesstigate the banging some time after that. According to Sergeant Connolly he went into the cell area at about 1.lSam. According to Garda Witheroe it was between 1.10 and 1.1 Sam. The timing is important.

Sergeant Connolly later testified that Martin stopped making noise when he went in. Martin asked to be released, said his wife would be nerrvous and waiting for him. Sergeant Connolly said he couldn't release Martin but when the arresting officer, Garda Murray, returned to me station he would have a chat with him and sort things out and Martin would be released then. Martin asked for a glass of water and Sergeant Connolly fetched one. Martin asked for a cigarette and the Sergeant explained that he could not give him one. The Sergeant says he persuaded Martin to lie down and cover himself with the blankets. He asked would Martin like the lights left on or off. Off. Connolly left.

At about 1.2Qam Garda Murray returned to the station with some prisoners. At that point Martin was found hanging from the centre vertical bar of the cell door by his shirt. His back was to the door and he was in a sitting position. Garda Murray tried to untie the knot on the shirt sleeves but could not. He held the body up to take the weight off while another garda got a knife and cut one of the sleeves.

The gardai say they tried mouthhto-mouth rescusitation and jabbed Martin in the chest to try and revive his heart. He was taken to Louth County Hospital where he was revived on machines. He lingered for forty hours on the machines, but according to state pathologist John Harbison Martin "died as a person" in the station that night.

There was an internal garda inquiry into the death of Martin Beatty. It was carried out by Superintendent Dennison, who is stationed at Kells. There was also an inquest. Inquests merely establish the physical cause of death and often raise more questions than they answer. The composition of an inquest jury is decided by the gardai. There was no independen t inquiry into the death of Martin Beatty. There is no' mechanism for such an inquiry.

The known facts of the circummstances of Martin's death leave many questions unanswered. The family of Martin Beatty are unsatisfied with the official account and will remain so as long as the questions remain unnanswered. Deputy Brendan McGahon, who arranged a meeting between the Beatty family and Inspector McCabe of the Crescent garda station, accepts the official outcome but admits to being puzzled by certain aspects of the case.

The events of that night and their timing, as related by the gardai, simply don't fit together. Let us suppose that Sergeant Connolly went into the cell at 1.1 Oarn, the earliest time mentioned. Let us suppose his visit lasted no more than three minutes, surely the absolute minimum for the transactions he desscribed. This takes us to 1.13am.

Martin was found hanging at 1.20am. According to the state pathoologist he had suffered brain damage through deprivation of oxygen. The amount of brain damage indicated that he had been deprived of oxygen for four, five or six minutes. So, he began dying at 1.16am, at the latest. This leaves a gap of three minutes, maximum.

During this time, if the official account is taken as true, Martin Beatty, having been assured that he would soon be released, having lain down and covered himself with blannkets and asked for the light off, took it into his head to commit suicide. He made the decision and executed it in three minutes, maximum.

The method of suicide was bizarre.

Martin took off his jacket. He then tied the sleeves of his shirt to the vertical bar in the cell door. He did this either by slipping out of the sleeves and tying them above his head or by taking off the shirt, tying the sleeves and then getting back into the shirt. He then put his jacket back on. He then assumed a sitting position, his feet inches from the floor.

All this was decided, planned and carried out in three minutes, maxiimum by a man arrested two hours earlier for being drunk and disorderly.

Had such doubts been the only ones raised it might be possible to leave the case as one of extraordinary coincidence and bad luck.

Martin Beatty's body had abrasions on the left shoulder and on the butttocks. He had a wound on the calf of his left leg, caused by something like a nail. He had slight bruises on the top of his head. He had a fractured rib.

His jacket had vomit stains over the shoulder and down the back. There were what appeared to be blooddstains on his trousers. There were two spots of blood near the waistband of his underpants. Despite the wound on his calf there was no bloodstain on his white sock. There was no tear in his trousers to match the calf wound.

The family received no explanation of these injuries or stains.

The calf wound could not have been caused by broken glass, according to the state pathologist. There was no blood on Martin's clothes after the glass was broken, according to a barrtender. It was suggested that the fracctured rib might have been caused by a jab to the chest during efforts to revive him. The state pathologist said this was possible but unlikely given Martin's age.

Given the nature of the case it is Uimportant to state explicitly that there is not the smallest sliver of evidence that Martin Beatty was deliberately done to death, nor that any action of thegardai caused his death. Apart from the lack of evidence, the complete absence of motive proohibits anything of that nature being read into the events of that night. It would be unfair to the gardai conncerned and to the truth to allow such a conclusion be drawn.

Yet several things are quite clear from the case of Martin Beatty. Garda stations are dangerous. Had Martin Beatty not been arrested that night on a minor charge he would be alive today. In taking people into custody and putting them into extraordinary and oppressive circumstances the state assumes a responsibility which it is clearly not discharging. The procedures for the protection of people in cusstody are clearly inadequate. The proocedures for investigating and revealing the facts of such cases are clearly inadequate and families are left to mourn their dead distracted by doubt and suspicion.

If this was a single and isolated case we might decide that there were odd circumstances but life is sometimes odd .and usually tough and pass on. But Martin Beatty was just one case in what has become a steady stream of deaths in custody.

Over the past ten years there has been a startling upsurge in the numbers of people dying while in the custody of the state. The statistics and cases quoted here are drawn from informa(t6n elicited by way of Dail questions last year by Tony Gregory and Alan Shatter and from informaation gathered by Magill.

In the five years 1970-74 inclusive, two people died while in the custody of the state. In the following five years, 1975-79 inclusive, no less than twenty people died while in the cusstody of the state. In the four years 1980-83 fifteen people have died in garda stations and prisons.

Of these 35 deaths, 23 occurred in garda stations and 12 in prisons.

By far the most common form of death is suicide by hanging, which occurred twelve times. Asphyxia due to inhalation of vomit occurred several times and the other deaths occurred from a variety of causes. The most bizarre official cause of death given was in the case of a Portlaoise prisoner named Smith who died in March 1975. He was "accidentally shot during escape attempt".

There is no pattern to the deaths.

During the Heavy Gang police violence of the mid-seventies, for example, there was a pattern. The same methods and names cropped up again and again and the organised nature-of the thing could be shown. There can be no justiified suspicion of anything sinister along those lines in the matter of deaths in custody. The deaths resulted from a variety of causes and are geoographically scattered. Only three garda stations, Rathmines, Ballymun and the Cork Bridewell, have had more than one death.

Some. individual deaths have unndoubtedly occurred because of the deteriorating relationship between the gardai and the public, and resulted directly or indirectly from the casual use of violence by some gardai. That use of violence has grown with the implict condonement by senior gardai and successive Ministers for Justice, who have steadfastly refused to tackle the known incidents of thuggery by sections of the detective force, to innvestigate the continuous allegations, or to set up an independent system of inquiry.

There is one partial exception here.

When Jim Mitchell became Minister for Justice he was disturbed at the level of allegations of police violence. He called in Commissioner McLoughlin and told him that "the source of these allegations must stop". Over the next three months the number of complaints was halved. While Mitchell is due some credit for this it is amazing that the police violence could be lowered in such a manner, as though by a tap an acknowledgement that the violence was endemic and susceptible to the garda command structure. And yet there was no investigation, no arrests.

It was tolerated.

While such violence could only account for a small minority of deaths, the antagonism and atmosphere of which it is a symptom might be one reason for the rise in the death rate among those in custody. It is likely that the majority of the deaths arise from much more general reasons.

Defining those reasons would need extensive research, not just into deaths in custody but into trends within 'society in general. It is as likely as not that the general level of tensiongand alienation in the community at large (with spin-offs in drug abuse, increased crime, the growth of geographic, social and political ghettoes, the perceived decline in morality in political, busiiness and religious circles etc) is a major cause. As the levels of distress rise in society in general they must also rise at the sharp end of society, in the prisons and police stations.

What is in no doubt is that custoodial institutions are not discharging the responsibility they assume when they take someone in off the streets. A police station or prison is a dangerous place to be and all the more dangerous for someone in distress, having committed or being under susspicion of having committed a crime, major or minor. Whether that danger comes from gardai who commit criminal acts or merely the circumstance s in whiich the person in custody finds him or her self in it is a danger which demonstrably exists.

In the late seventies the O Briain Commission recommedned that each person taken into custody should be the responsibility of a Custodial Guardian who would ensure that the person's rights and needs were respected. The recommendation was that a member of the gardai would fulfil this role. The O Briain report was ignored.

In September 1982 a man named Michael Lynagh hanged himself in Mountjoy prison. Lyynagh had been subjedted to police harassment for several months previously because of his relationship to Jim Lynagh, a prominent Provo. Lynagh was brandishing a knife and threatening to kill himself when he was arrestted for his own safety by police. The garda had the wit to have Lynagh sent to Mountjoy for psychiatric assessment. Lynagh had a history of phychiatric ilness. So terrified was he of attracting the attention of the Special Branch again that he concealed his true identity. In Mountjoy he waited for several days in anguish, being paid no special attention. He finally hanged himslf.

At the inquest Michael Lynagh the jury recommended that the Minister for Justice take steps to reduce the possibility of this happening again. Four months later another man, Jimmy McNamara, hanged himself. Last month we asked the Department of Justuce to specify what steps they have taken in light of the recommendation from the inquest jury. The Department refused to answer.