Christopher Alder

Page updated Wednesday 1st May 2013 at 1000hrs

Christopher Alder (picured above centre) was a British-born former Army paratrooper, of Nigerian descent, who had served his country valiantly in the Falklands War and was subsequently decorated during his tour of duty in Northern Ireland. The father of two sons Leon and Kevin, he died whilst in Humberside Police custody at Queen’s Gardens Police Station, Kingston-upon-Hull, on 1st April 1998. Chris was only 37 years old and, at the time, training to be a computer programmer at a local college.

The Alder case became a cause célèbre for civil rights and police corruption campaigners as Chris’s family, led by his irrepressible sister Janet, sought to break down a police cover-up of breath-taking extent and audacity. It would surprise few to find that West Yorkshire Police were central in that cover-up and that the detective leading the external investigation into Humberside Police, Supt John Holt (pictured top left), has since been discredited as part of the infamous Operation Douglas corruption scandal. Holt retired from the police service in 2005 having, incredibly, been promoted after two spectacularly bungled major investigations, but still provides consultancy services to West Yorkshire Police, via an operation called Intelligence Analysis Training. There is , of course, another famous West Yorkshire Police precedent where incompetence and dishonesty was richly rewarded. As in the case of the infamous George Oldfield of Judith Ward and Yorkshire Ripper fame.

Amongst a series of catastrophic failings by Holt’s team was the fact that Chris Alder’s clothes were destroyed by the very people investigating his unexplained death and, as such, those exhibits were never subjected to forensic examination. There were also the questions of a missing belt and also additional injuries not sustained in the nightclub altercation that were never investigated at all by West Yorkshire Police.

This is how the IPCC summarised Holt and West Yorkshire Police: Superintendent Holt lacked any experience of this type of investigation. The recording processes were poor and the early assumption that the (Humberside) officers (in the custody suite) were not at fault meant that their PNB’s and duty statements were not secured as a priority and their clothing was returned to them so as “not to hurt their feelings” and without a clear rationale as to the evidential consequences. Regulation 7 disciplinary notices we’re not issued in a timely way.

Chris had earlier been the victim of an assault outside the Waterfront Club and was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary where, arguably as a result of his head injury, staff said his behaviour was “extremely troublesome“. He was escorted from the hospital by two police officers who then arrested him to allegedly prevent a breach of the peace. On arrival at Queen’s Gardens police station he was “partially dragged and partially carried” handcuffed and unconscious, from a police van and then placed face down on the floor of the custody suite while officers casually chatted between themselves and speculated that he was faking illness. The entire incident was captured on the police station CCTV cameras (see footage here) and the audio tape of the footage appears to reveal that the officers made monkey noises, a common form of racist abuse against black people. This was astonishingly referred to later by the IPCC Chairman as “unwitting racism”.

Twelve minutes after arriving at the police station one of those officers noticed that Chris was not making any breathing sounds. Although resuscitation was then attempted, he was pronounced dead at the scene. The post mortem examination indicated that the head injury alone would not have killed him.

The five police officers who were present in the custody suite at the time were called to give evidence at the inquest, but on more than 150 occasions during the hearing refused to answer questions, citing Coroners Rules that the response could provide self-incriminating evidence. Notwithstanding, the Coroner’s jury returned a verdict that Chris Alder was unlawfully killed by the wilful neglect of those same officers.

Two years later, the five police officers went on trial accused of manslaughter and misconduct in public office, but were cleared on the orders of the judge after the evidence of two medical experts “crumbled”. The Crown Prosecution Service had initially decided that there was insufficient evidence to pursue criminal charges against the officers but, following a review of medical evidence provided by Professors Crane and Adgey, Sgt John Dunn and PC’s Neil Blakey, Mark Ellerington, Nigel Dawson and Matthew Barr were eventually charged. The Attorney General subsequently challenged the legal correctness of the officers’ acquittals and sent the ruling to the Court of Appeal “to clarify the threshold for evidence in future death-in-custody cases” although this would not affect this particular acquittal because of the legal principle of “double jeopardy”, which applied at that time.

A BBC Rough Justice broadcast in April 2004 entitled “Death On Camera“, examined the circumstances of Chris’s death, including the CCTV footage from the custody suite which had previously not been seen by the public. As a result of the programme, (which was also responsible for clearing wrongly jailed Anthony Steel) and the deep public concern it raised, the Home Secretary at the time David Blunkett asked the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) to review the case

In January 2006, a Sheffield County Court jury found that a man had been unlawfully arrested by Humberside Police and charged with Chris Alder’s assault on the night he died. According to the trial judge this was “to divert attention away from the part the police themselves played in Mr Alder’s death”. It was another shocking chapter in the book of Humberside and West Yorkshire Police failings. Jason Paul was awarded £30,500 damages after the jury heard he tried to stop a fight between Mr Alder and another man on the night the ex-paratrooper died. In 2003,  Circuit Judge Peter Heppel QC (who died shorly afterwards in 2004), who principally heard civil claims in Hull, had dismissed the same case on the grounds there was no factual evidence of police deceit, but three Appeal Court judges led by Lord Justice Henry Brooke overturned that ruling in March 2004 and ordered another hearing.

Later in 2006, the IPCC published their 408 page Report (see full version here) which concluded that four of the officers present in the custody suite when Chris Alder died were guilty of the “most serious neglect of duty“. Three of those same officers Dunn, Dawson and Barr were granted early retirement in December 2004 on “stress-related medical grounds” and received lump-sum compensation payments of between £44,000 and £66,000 as well as enhanced pension benefits. PC Blakey (pictured top right)remains with Humberside Police but is protected from further action by the double jeopardy rule. Blakey was the officer who arrested Chris Alder at Hull Royal Infirmary, where he was taken after sustaining his injuries outside the nightclub. The same officer, Blakey, had described Chris as “right as rain” whilst he was face down on the floor gurgling in his own blood.

All those same Humberside officers had all declined requests to take part in the IPCC inquiry and had also been exonerated in an internal disciplinary process. That inquiry was held by the Chief Constable of Cleveland Police, Sean Price, upon the recommendation of the Police Complaints Authority. Price was himself dismissed from the police service in 2012 for ‘gross misconduct’ on a lengthy list of charges.

In September 2006 Leon Wilson, one of Chris Alder’s two sons, went to the High Court to challenge the Home Office’s refusal to reopen the case. The judge rejected his case, saying it was “legally reasonable for the Secretary of State to believe that no more worthwhile evidence was likely to emerge“.

The Government formally apologised, in November 2011, to the Alder family in the European Court of Human Rights, admitting that it had breached its obligations in regard to preserving life and ensuring no one is subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment. The Government also admitted that they had failed to carry out an effective and independent inquiry into the case. Corinna Ferguson, legal officer for LIBERTY, said: “The Government’s unprecedented apology and admission of blatant violations of fundamental human rights are hugely significant and certainly not before time. But more than 13 years on still no one in the police has been held responsible for Christopher’s shocking death. Proper accountability is vital in these situations and in future the IPCC must take stronger, more decisive action where serious human rights violations occur“. She then added: “The offence of misconduct in public office is completely inadequate in these circumstances – as demonstrated by the fact that these officers were somehow cleared of it. Sadly admissions and apologies will matter little if such tragic cases keep occurring.”

In that very same month as the long overdue official apology Chris Alder’s body was astonishingly discovered in the mortuary at Hull Royal Infirmary, eleven years after his family believed they had buried him. An exhumation of his grave in Hull’s Northern Cemetery during the night of 21 February 2012 found that Grace Kamara, a 77 year old woman, had been buried in his place.

Soon after, South Yorkshire Police Detective Superintendent Richard Fewkes announced that a criminal investigation had begun to determine if an offence of misconduct in public office has been committed. No charges have yet been brought against anyone as a result of those enquiries which were concluded in April 2013. The 160 page Report stated that three managers at the Hull mortuary where Christopher’s body was found, more than a decade after he was supposed to have been buried, “may have a case to answer” at the end of what was a 15-month inquiry.

These are extracts from the Report’s summary:  “The investigation team have identified 10 occasions during this period of time when they had the opportunity to identify that the body purporting to be Grace Kamara was in fact Christopher Alder and working practices prevented this.

The Crown Prosecution Service must consider whether they have been ‘wilfully negligent’ and whether the evidence is sufficient to pass the evidential test to support a charge and secure a successful prosecution for the criminal offence of misconduct in a public office.”

Pending the outcome of the criminal inquiry, Liberty lodged a protective claim with Central London County Court on behalf of Janet Alder. This claim allows pursuit of possible civil proceedings against Hull Council, which ran the city mortuary when the wrong body was released in November 2000, and Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, which took charge before Mrs Kamara’s abortive funeral last year. Janet was scathing in her condemnation of the outcome of the South Yorkshire Police inquiry: “I am absolutely appalled,” she said. “If they’re saying it’s policy and procedures, it can’t have been the same people dealing with it all the time, so are they saying nobody did their job right? I don’t believe that for one minute. If that’s the case how many times have they buried the wrong people? How can they be sure they haven’t done it before?”

She concluded decisively: “If it’s down to policy and procedures there’s a good chance something like this has happened in the past and nobody knows about it.”