Published: 00:01, 02 May 2013
PCs Neil Bowdery, left, and Maurice Leigh at Maidstone Crown Court over the death of Colin Holt. Pictures: Mike Gunnill
by Keith Hunt
Two police officers have been cleared of allowing a schizophrenic man to die in front of them as they tried to return him to hospital.
PC Maurice Leigh, 54, and 29-year-old PC Neil Bowdery, from Chatham, both denied misconduct in public office over the handling of Colin Holt.
He died from “positional asphyxia”, which occurs when a person’s position prevents him from breathing while being detained.
Prosecutor Duncan Penny had told Maidstone Crown Court that the officers allowed Mr Holt to “die in front of them without taking action to seek to prevent it”.
They were among others who went to 52-year-old Mr Holt’s flat at Harbledown Manor in Goudhurst Road, Twydall, on August 30 2010 after he went missing from Medway Hospital.
Leigh, who joined Kent Police in July 2002 after serving as a Special Constable, said in evidence when he and another officer, PC Reeves, went to the flat to detain Mr Holt under the Mental Health Act it was “in a bit of a mess”.
Maidstone Crown Court, where the case is being heard
“It was a small dingy flat packed with furniture,” he said. “Mr Holt was very aggressive towards us from the off. He asked what we wanted and told us to get out.”
It was necessary to handcuff Mr Holt, he said, because he was being violent, adding: “He was very strong.”
Leigh demonstrated to the jury of seven men and five women how Mr Holt was handcuffed with his arms behind his back.
The officer said he was aware of positional asphyxia because it was covered in training.
Leigh was asked what his impression of Mr Holt was when he left.
“I looked at him as I left,” he said. “His eyes were moving and he was breathing. In my opinion, he was alive.”
He returned to Medway police station to get treatment for his injuries and heard an officer at the flat say over the radio: “We are working on him.”
“I was totally shocked, because when I left everything appeared in order,” said Leigh. “When I left Mr Holt was on his knees. His upper torso was into the chair and he was looking to the right.”
Asked by his QC Hugh Davies why Mr Holt, who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, was placed over a chair, he replied: “The place was very cluttered. There was nowhere else to put him.
“With regard to positional asphyxia, we believed it was a good position to be in. I didn’t see anything wrong with putting him over the seat. He was still being very aggressive.
“He was trying to kick us and grab us even though he was handcuffed. I don’t recall his verbals. Once we had him fully cuffed he was placed in the chair with the intention of waiting for further patrols to come.”
Leigh said he had used his shoulder twice to push Mr Holt down.
Asked if he considered the position as high risk, he said: “Absolutely not."
High Court judge Mr Justice Singh said after the verdicts that the trial had raised questions about the quality of training given to Kent Police officers at the relevant time in relation to safety.
He said it was “in particular the issue of positional asphyxia in restraint positions and, secondly, into refresher training in first aid”.
The judge added: “I do not intend to say more about these matters because it would not be appropriate for me in any way to intrude upon the province of the coroner or any inquest there may be in the future.
"there may be at least some comfort for those concerned with this tragic death in the sense it is to be hoped that lessons can be learnt for the future" – mr justice singh
“However, this has been a criminal trial of individual defendants. I haven’t heard, for example, full evidence there might be on behalf of the Kent Police Force.
“Nevertheless, I hope that what I have said about questions that have inevitably arisen will be of some assistance to those who are concerned with this matter in the future.
“In that way, there may be at least some comfort for those concerned with this tragic death in the sense it is to be hoped that lessons can be learnt for the future.”
Mr Justice Singh said he wanted to express his sympathy to Mr Holt’s family, who could not be present because of his mother’s funeral.
He also asked why there had been such a delay in the case reaching court.
PC Leigh’s QC Hugh Davies said a critical basis for the allegation was that the officer was alleged to have commented that Mr Holt was “out cold”.
“That was known within three weeks of the incident,” he said. “It took nearly two years for the decision to prosecute. That doesn’t help the family. It doesn’t help the officers.”
The judge told jurors it had been “a sensitive and difficult trial”.
An official police statement after the acquittal said: "The death of Colin Holt is a tragedy for everyone concerned.
"Kent Police offers its sincere condolences to Mr Holt's family and friends.
"This has been traumatic for the officers concerned and this case underlines that policing is often a difficult job, sometimes carried out in very difficult circumstances."