Back in March I wrote about my friend Brett Ewins (read it here.) I can update it now but, before I continue, I need to correct something I wrote then. I said that it was a blow to the head that caused Brett to collapse and his heart to stop for fifteen minutes – I have found out since that, whilst he did receive a blow to the head, more than one in fact, it was some minutes later, after a continuing struggle, that he suffered a heart attack.
I promised to keep the story updated but that hasn’t been easy as reliable information has been hard to come by. I did go to see him in prison a couple of times and would have gone more but we were being told that he was coming out on bail almost every week. He never did. He was held on remand for the full seven months despite the fact that the judge seemed quite keen on getting him out.
This is the first of a number of things I am not clear about. In this instance the best I can say is I think the fact that he wasn’t allowed home had something to do with a lack of cooperation by the local health authority psychiatrist responsible for Brett’s care. Possibly because of questions being raised about the new anti-psychotic meds Brett had been put on at the time of the incident.
Brett’s trial concluded yesterday and, in the end, he was found guilty of wounding and we, his friends, feel kind of relieved and grateful. Trouble is, I can’t quite rid myself of the feeling that it’s not the appropriate response.
I am, we are, grateful for the efforts made by his defence team. I think we all felt that the judge was extremely fair, insightful and humane, even the forensic psychiatrist called as an expert witness by the prosecution did not try to pretend that the man being prosecuted was, under what passes for normal circumstances even as a paranoid schizophrenic, a very pleasant, polite, and intelligent person. And the jury were obviously attentive and doing their very best to reach a fair decision. We are grateful for all that. We couldn’t really have hoped for more. And therein, perhaps, lies the problem.
He was charged with GBH with intent. That is to say that he stabbed someone (in this case a police officer) with intent to cause serious bodily harm (the intent bit is crucial – it would add years to any possible sentence.)
Being a registered schizophrenic is no defence and nor should it be. Schizophrenics maybe more or less troubled at different times, sometimes they may be delusional but that does not, necessarily, have any bearing on their ability to tell right from wrong or to be the deliberate, conscious, authors of their actions. But, you’d think, wouldn’t you, that if a person seemingly goes berserk and attacks a couple of policeman with a knife the obvious call would be to plead insanity but, apparently, and this is another thing I’m not clear about, in this case it wasn’t an option. The reason it wasn’t had something to do, either with the fact that because of Brett’s deep amnesia with relation to the events in question, he was not in a position to understand the nature of his mental processes well enough to instruct his barrister to so plead on his behalf, or, again because of that amnesia and there being no independent witnesses, there was no evidence to prove that he might have been insane at the time. Effectively, it’s the policemen’s word against… well… nothing, actually.
You don’t need me to tell you that it is the job of the prosecution to prove the defendant guilty beyond reasonable doubt but it was an anomaly of this case that once the two officers had given their evidence, the normal emphasis seemed to shift somewhat and it seemed almost as if the defence had to prove him innocent or, at least, find a way to cast a shadow of reasonable doubt in the jurors minds.
Let me state for the record that none of Brett’s friends believe him to be anything other than innocent. If I believed anything other than that I wouldn’t be writing this but were I an ordinary juror, with only the police evidence and the main argument put forward by the defence to go on, no matter how much sympathy I felt for the obviously weakened and troubled man I could see in the dock, I would have had to find him guilty. I shall speak about the police evidence in a minute but, whilst the psychiatric report for the defence might have done much to make me believe the defendant was, normally, a gentle and perhaps even a quite likeable gentleman, there was nothing in it that would have allowed me to find him not guilty. There is much that I and the rest of his friends know that supports our view that he did nothing for which he might be considered culpable but the jury heard very little of it despite the fact that any one of us would have been ready to stand up and testify on his behalf. The reasons we didn’t get the opportunity so to do are interesting in themselves but are beside the point.
The police evidence was as follows. They called on Brett’s neighbours at about 8.30 am on a very cold Saturday morning in mid-January. (They, of course, had the date to hand. I’ve got it somewhere.) They had been called by Brett’s neighbours because they could hear Brett shouting next door. (Brett does shout at his voices sometimes.) The neighbours apparently make a lot of noise too. Both parties have made complaints in the past and it is on record that the neighbour has attacked Brett in his own home on one occasion. Also one of the officers had visited Brett before and new he had mental health issues. He thought he acted strangely and told his partner that he might be violent but that he was only small so they should be OK. He is not. Violent, I mean.
When the police first arrived they saw that Brett’s front door was shut. They spent a few minutes talking to the neighbours and then went next door to see Brett. Now his front door was wide open. ?
As a group of people we, Brett’s friends, are a bunch of reasonably well educated sort of middle class men and women with a bit of life behind us. Some I’ve known for sometime others only since this case started. I’m pretty sure that for the most part, whilst we are well aware that the police do not always tell the truth, our default position is more likely to be that we will believe them until given cause to doubt. None of us believes that the door was open. We know how security conscious Brett was; how keen to lock doors and double check that they were locked. Moreover, he suffered terribly in the winter from ill-health – chilblains on his finger tips make it difficult for him to grip things and have been contributory to his not being able to draw; also, as I think I mentioned in the earlier entry, he has bad lungs, often being the victim of bronchitis and pleurisy. Trying to keep warm through the winter, like many other people living on benefits, was one of Brett’s major objectives.
He would never, ever, leave his front door open; not in mid-summer, certainly not in the middle of winter. If it had been left open and, as none of us were there we cannot swear that it wasn’t, it could only be because Brett’s normal reality had already fallen away.
Both policeman were asked if they had any idea why a security chain was found ripped of the door in the hall. They both said that they had not noticed it nor had any idea how it had got there. Later the jury heard evidence that the door had been damaged at an earlier date. Sadly they didn’t hear that the damage had been repaired a few days before the police made their way in.
Once inside the house they said they identified themselves as police. One said that Brett appeared at the other end of the hall screaming shouting and brandishing a knife, the other said that there was no knife at that point; that Brett returned to the kitchen later to get the knife. In terms of the case it doesn’t matter much. Other inconsistencies worry me more. I think all of us that know the space beyond Brett’s front door had great difficulty understanding how the action being described fitted into it or indeed how, if the worst of the violence took place by the now closed front door, most of Brett’s blood had been sprayed against the kitchen door which must be 20ft away.
To hear what Brett was screaming and shouting was very upsetting. It relates to a particular delusion of his that started to take a grip of him at the end of last year and which he hasn’t been able to shake since. I’m not going to describe it. It would seem like an invasion of his privacy. When we hear anything of it, some aspect of it will just drop into an otherwise normal conversation, it’s kind of jarring but we usually just sort of fumble around it for a moment and move quickly on. Had he not been held in prison all these months it may be he’d have received some help diminish it’s hold on him. Had he not been in prison we might have felt it more appropriate to challenge it ourselves.
The police described something very different though. Brett was very angry with some imagined element of it and was demanding that these men standing in his hallway do something about it.
One suspects that the best thing they could have done at that point was to agree to go and do the thing he asked, retreat outside and call up some support from someone with a little more expertise in the mental health issues than they possessed themselves. Instead, after he got the knife, they demanded that he drop it, when he just went on screaming, staring with “crazy eyes” and fencing at them with the knife the first one sprayed him in the face with a full can of pepper spray and when that apparently had no effect the second policeman after calling for back-up clicked open his baton and beat Brett on the arm first and then directly, full force on the head, probably twice, maybe three times before Brett stabbed him. That officer then opened the door and escaped outside whilst the other one then jumped on Brett. He also used his baton a number of times on Brett’s shoulders arms and legs before managing to wrestle Brett to the ground in the front garden where at least one assisting officer started kicking him in the shoulder supposedly to release the arm trapped underneath his stomach.
That’s when Brett’s heart gave up.
Both officers described how frightened they were during the confrontation. They said they feared for their lives.
One described how the pepper spray that he had released in that very confined space made it difficult for him to breath and almost impossible for him to see. The other one described the extent of his injury, how his wife, who was pregnant and a police controller, had heard what was happening and had rushed round to make sure he was all right.
I don’t want to diminish either what must have been a very frightening experience for both of them, or the injury to the officers wrist but I do want to point out that no-one had anything to say about the unnecessary injuries suffered by Brett, or the fear and confusion he must have been feeling. The fact that he had died for fifteen minutes, had been in a coma for days, had serious bruising over large parts of his body was either never mentioned or glossed over very quickly. The prosecution described the injury caused by two or three full bloodied blows from the taller officers asp as a “bump on the head.”
One officer was in his early thirties, I’d guess, average height, quite burly. The other, younger, fit and strong, well on the generous side of six feet.
Brett is 56 years old, about 5’ 6”or 7” has weak lungs, asthma, arthritis and walks unsteadily with a stick. He has trouble getting up and down stairs and the most exercise he’s had in years is a walk up to the park.
In my imagined film version of this story, at the conclusion of the police evidence I’d have the defence team, in a wonderful coup de theatre, stand the two officers in front of jury with Brett leaning on his stick between them. The jury would make a quick comparison of the three men in front of them turn to the prosecution, snort derisively, pick up their belongings and walk out of the court.
Key to the prosecution case was what the police said Brett shouted at them. Not the delusional stuff but something else they said he kept repeating - “I’m going to kill you copper!” If Brett said this then it supplies the all important intent part to GBH with intent and probably many years in some kind of secure unit.
Many of his friends don’t believe this either. It does, after all, sound rather poorly scripted and we all knew how respectful he was of the police. I never heard him have anything but good to say about them, he liked them, they had, on the whole, treated him well and he recognised that. Certainly I never heard him call them “coppers.”
Over the four days of the trial I watched the jurors as they attended to the two different narratives being constructed by the defence and the prosecution. I wondered how engaged each person looked. I noticed when they looked over to Brett and measured what they were hearing against the man drooped in his chair behind the thick plate glass, his walking stick hooked on to ledge next to him. I measured their faces for intelligence, scepticism and empathy. I gradually grew more confidant that they didn’t want to find Brett guilty but, also, realised that they would have to find him guilty of something. They couldn’t decide for themselves, even if they suspected that, perhaps, not everything they had heard the police say was true. Not without having any evidence to support that suspicion. Neither could they decide for themselves that Brett could not be held responsible for his actions because he was legally insane at the time, when that option had never been offered them. If not GBH with intent then it had to be the lesser charge of wounding. And when they were asked to carefully deliberate and try to come to a unanimous decision it took next to no time. They returned once to ask the judge to clarify one legal point and then away again and back almost immediately.
On the charge of GBH with intent – not guilty. On the charge of wounding – guilty.
We should all be grateful to them. They did their job well.
The judge has called for a psychiatric report and, although he told Brett he could expect a custodial sentence, Brett’s barrister has told us not to worry too much on that account, that it’s likely, depending on the recommendations of the report, that Brett will be released on bail. If that option is open to the judge I’ll be surprised if doesn’t take it. I’ve had a strong feeling that he has long been sympathetic to Brett’s plight.
Almost inevitably, knowing what I know, there have been times when I’ve wanted Brett’s barrister to push back harder or to challenge an argument but I recognise what an unbalanced case this must have been for him, where the only defence available was to try and convince the jury that the defendant is not the sort of guy who could have done this sort of thing. He did it and remained good humoured and patient in the face of all of our questions and opinions. We are grateful to him for that. I’m sure Brett is too
I’ll even extend a gracious thank you to barrister acting for the crown - who Pete suggested looked like he tore the limbs off small animals at the weekend – for fulfilling his part. I’m sure he could have been sneakier with very little effort.
But I’m not satisfied. This case should never have come to court. Brett has been denied his freedom for over seven months, has a criminal record for something that he never should have been held culpable for and denied the sort of treatment or therapy he might have expected on the outside, all because two rather inept young policemen walked, uninvited, into the house of a mentally ill man and didn’t know how to get out again without beating him nearly to death.
Brett will be sentenced on October 26th. We hope it’s a probationary sentence and that some professional help and support will be made available to him.
The young officer received some nerve damage to his left hand. It leaves him with some loss of sensation, a pins and needles-like feeling and some restricted movement to his little finger. The nerves may yet grow back. We hope they do.