Mysterious death of young man in a police cell
all credits – Socialist Worker Online
Originally published 28th December 2009
News updates listed at the foot of this item
Lee Donovan was arrested in Newport, South Wales, at around 10:00pm on Friday 25 April 2008. He was taken to a police cell in nearby Pontypool at 10:45pm. By )1:00am the next morning the young man was dead. Lee’s family desperately want answers as to what happened in the last few hours of his life. They want to know how a happy and healthy 23 year old went out with friends on a Friday night and ended up dead in police custody just hours later.
Lee’s father, Mark, told Socialist Worker that the family has been devastated by the death. “Lee was only 23 – it’s such a young age to die,” he said. “We are still in shock. I want to know how my son died in that cell.”
Gwent police force has referred the case to the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), which says its investigation is ongoing. The IPCC confirmed that Lee was arrested in Newport on suspicion of damaging a vehicle and taken by police to Pontypool station – nine miles away – as the Newport police cells were being refurbished.
The IPCC says Lee was found in the early morning collapsed in his cell. Paramedics called to the scene failed to revive him and he was pronounced dead in the station.
“I think the authorities are embarrassed about Lee’s death,” Mark said. “In my heart of hearts I don’t know whether we’ll ever really find out what happened, but I know we are going to try to make sure we get some answers. “I have questions going through my head all the time – why was Lee arrested for such a minor offence? How was he processed? How did he die? What happened in that police station?”
Mark said that the police informed his mother, Lee’s grandmother, of the death at around 8am on Saturday morning. She phoned Mark’s brother who came to his house to break the news. The family had to go to identify the body later that morning. “We weren’t allowed to go near him or touch him,” Mark said. “They said he was a ‘crime scene’. It was terrible.”
An autopsy and forensic tests were carried out. On 8 May an inquest into the death was opened and adjourned for further investigation. The family weren’t able to bury Lee until 14 May. They are still waiting for information about what any of the tests might reveal about the cause of death.
Mark says he has been shocked to discover how many others have died in police custody. “It has really opened my eyes to see the number of deaths, and to see so many other families still fighting for answers,” he said.
More than 500 people have died in police custody in England and Wales since 1997 according to campaign group Inquest, which runs an independent monitoring service. From the beginning of 1997 to February 2007 there have been prosecutions in only three cases – and no convictions.
Lee’s family say that he was in fine health in the months before his death and went to the gym a couple of times a week. Mark said that Lee was also in good spirits and had planned to go back to college to train as a landscape gardener. “On the Wednesday before he died Lee was spending time with his son. He had everything going for him,” he said.
In a touching tribute to Lee his father said the following on behalf of family members and friends:
“My son Lee was the first of seven children, three boys and four girls. We will always remember him as a compassionate man with a wonderful sense of humour. Lee was a well mannered and polite lad and had a great love of life.
“Lee always had a sparkle in his eyes. He always made everyone who came into contact with him smile. Lee always took the time to help other people. Lee was adored and loved by his family and will be sadly missed by his untimely death and we are all trying to come to terms with our sad loss. Lee will never be forgotten by his family and friends. Rest in peace Lee.”
Inquest and IPCC report into cell death of Lee Donovan
29 October 2012
Will a death in custody always be subject to independent investigation? (pdf)
Tribute after son died in custody
7 May 2008
Dad pays tribute to ‘polite’ son
7 May 2008
More tests on cell death man
1 May 2008