'We've just got to walk away'

The Barr tribunal has been widely criticised but at least the Carthy family got an apology. Irene Stanley describes her battle for justice for her husband, who was shot dead by British police. By Eleanor Burnhill

An €18m tribunal and an apology from the state later, John Carthy's family are still left with unanswered questions about why he was shot dead by gardaí following a 25-hour siege at his Co Longford home in April 2000. However, whilst the Garda has been criticised for a culture of closing ranks, the Carthy family have at least now received an apology from the Garda Commissioner.

In the UK, families who have lost loved ones in police shootings are angered over proposals for police to be granted immunity from prosecution if they kill while on duty. There have been 47 fatal police shootings in England and Wales since 1985.

A lawyer who acted for two policemen who shot dead a Scottish man in London, after a table leg he was carrying was mistaken for a sawn-off shot gun, has called for an Indemnity Act to prevent armed police officers from facing criminal and civil prosecution. John Mackenzie is working with the Police Federation of England and Wales and contact has been made with the British Home Secretary. He says that if a state decides to arm its police, it can expect some people to be shot.

He added that tribunals and inquiries take a lot of time "agonising over the results" and can give families false hope.

He represented Inspector (now Chief Inspector) Neil Sharman and PC Kevin Fagan, members of the specialist firearms command branch of the Metropolitan Police. The men fired two shots at Harry Stanley, a 46-year-old painter and decorator from Glasgow on 22 September 1999. They were alerted to his movements after Stanley had a drink at a pub and a member of the public saw the table leg wrapped in a plastic bag, wrongly believing it to be a gun.

Seven years later his widow Irene says there has still not been a full inquiry into his death. Asked about the scope of the Barr tribunal, which sat for three years, she says: "I never really got a response after Harry died. I never got to do anything like that."

A second inquest into his death returned a verdict of unlawful killing and the two officers in the case were suspended from duty. However, the unlawful killing verdict was later overturned by the High Court and criminal charges were ruled out in October last year. The UK's Independent Police Complaints Commission decided against disciplinary action, but recommended police officers involved in fatal shootings should give video statements immediately afterwards, without conferring with colleagues.

Irene Stanley now says she can't battle any further. "It's all about money. At the end of the day we've just got to walk away – it's been seven years." On 22 September this year a piper will play a tune at the spot where he was killed.

Terry Stewart, secretary of the Justice for Harry Stanley campaign, who also runs the UK-based support group Ceart (the Irish Deaths in Custody Campaign), is particularly concerned by John Mackenzie's proposals for an Indemnity Act. "It's outrageous what he's asking for." He said this would allow police to act as "executioner, judge and jury".

In both the Stanley and the Carthy cases, top US witnesses were flown in to give expert opinions. Frederick J Lancely, a former chief negotiator with the FBI, controversially told the Barr tribunal that John Carthy may have been trying to commit "suicide by cop" by enticing police to shoot him. Interestingly it was key evidence from another advisor to the FBI, Canadian professor Bill Lewinski, who helped clear the Stanley case officers from any wrongdoing.

Based at the Force Science Research Centre at Minnesota State University, he has studied more than 1,000 police shootings. He argues officers may have difficulty remembering their actions "post incident" which could explain why accounts often differ from forensic evidence.

He made a computerised reconstruction which showed that Harry Stanley may have been facing police as they opened fire, not facing away from them, as was first suggested. Irene Stanley does not agree and says Lewinski was paid a lot of money for his opinion. Speaking about her dealings with the police she says: "They do try to close ranks. You're up against the whole system."

The Barr tribunal has thrown up many issues about the Garda's handling of the John McCarthy case. However, as gun crime escalates here, more police shootings are likely to occur and it is unclear whether taxpayers would stomach another public inquiry on this scale.