Thursday, June 16, 2005

Drama of final moments unfolds

Nuñez inquest

By Brian Reyes

The second day of the inquest into the death of Clive Nuñez focused on a meticulous reconstruction of events on the night he hung himself while detained in a police cell in New Mole House station.

The Coroner’s Court painstakingly pieced together the sequence of events using video evidence and testimony from several police officers on duty at the time.

One of the key issues under scrutiny yesterday was Mr Nuñez’s condition when he arrived at the police station after being arrested for being drunk and disorderly following a disturbance in his home.

Mr Nuñez had been extremely agitated and aggressive on the way to the station but officers said he underwent a rapid change of mood upon arriving there.

He was seen on video yesterday walking calmly into New Mole House alongside police officers, even pausing to stub a cigarette out in a floor-standing ashtray.

While all the officers agreed that he had clearly been under the influence of alcohol – forensic evidence showed he had consumed about double the legal driving limit – they all stopped short of describing him as heavily drunk.

Even so, one officer said Mr Nuñez’s speech had been slurred and incoherent, while another noted that he had had some difficulty in walking.

But none of the officers involved in his arrest or in processing him into custody upon arrival at the station believed that he was a risk to himself or to others.

“At the time I had no concerns whatsoever,” said Sergeant John Anthony Goodman, a highly experienced officer who was present when Mr Nuñez, who he had known for many years, was arrested and subsequently taken to the station. Sergeant Goodman last saw Mr Nuñez when he handed him over to officers at New Mole Station.

Sergeant Louis Chichon, who was the station sergeant on the night and had overall responsibility for the running of that shift, backed that assessment. “I wasn’t told that this person was a risk,” Sergeant Chichon said. “In my assessment, I did not think that Mr Nuñez was a risk,” he added.

Henry McIntosh, who was a police officer at the time and was the jailer on the night in question, was also asked if he had held any concerns about Mr Nuñez’s condition.
“Not an inkling,” he answered. “I wish I had.”

Checking Prisoners

As a jailer, Mr McIntosh’s duties included keeping a close eye on prisoners held in cells in the police station’s custody suite.

Sergeant Chichon explained that the norm for ‘drunk’ prisoners at the time was for the jailer to carry out physical checks every 30 minutes.

The entire system has since been reviewed and changed, including the creation of the new post of ‘custody sergeant’ to replace that of ‘station sergeant’, with clearly established guidelines on prisoner surveillance.

In any case, on the night Mr Nuñez died, all prisoners had to be checked at least once an hour.

This point is important because although Mr Nuñez died at around 4.15am, his body was not discovered until approximately five hours later.

Yesterday, Mr McIntosh, who had responsibility for supervising prisoners that night in 2001, insisted that he had used CCTV monitors to check the condition of the men in the cells, including Mr Nuñez, periodically throughout the night.

According to him, there were no firm guidelines for these procedures at the time and it was customary, depending on the workload, to use CCTV monitors to carry out checks on prisoners, rather than do it physically. “There was so much going on that night,” Mr McIntosh told the court. “I didn’t see anything wrong with Clive Nuñez every time I looked at the monitors.”

After around 4.15am, the approximate time of his death, Mr Nuñez appeared to be standing against the wall, Mr McIntosh said.

Elliott Phillips, the lawyer acting for the Nuñez family, pointed out that one of the CCTV monitors in another cell had been blacked out for nearly four hours that night. He asked Mr McIntosh how, if he had regularly checked the monitors, it was possible that he had not noticed.

“I don’t know,” Mr McIntosh replied. “I can’t explain it.”

Mr McIntosh also claimed to have spoken to Mr Nuñez about an hour before he died to see how he was. Mr Nuñez had appeared to be well, he said.

But the former police officer was forced to correct that statement after video footage viewed by the inquest showed that he had not exchanged words with Mr Nuñez.

“I was in the belief that I had spoken to him,” Mr McIntosh said. “I am now corrected by the tape.”

The inquest also heard how Mr McIntosh had filled in the record of his checks toward the end of his shift, rather than at the time each check was carried out. The times entered were based on his recollection.

“I’ve already dealt with that fact in another court,” he told the inquest, adding no further detail.

A Busy Night

At around 4.15am on October 14, 2001, at least four officers were processing a Filipino prisoner in the custody suite at New Mole House. Including Mr Nuñez, he was the fifth prisoner in custody that night.

The Filipino man was a sailor and had been involved in a stabbing incident on board a ship. He had been brought to New Mole Station a few minutes prior to that. Video footage seen by the Coroner’s Court yesterday shows him first sitting in the corridor that separates the cells in the custody suite, talking to officers. At the same time that this is happening, Clive Nuñez is preparing to hang himself in a cell just a few feet away, at the other end of the row of cells.

The footage shown to the inquest yesterday switched from one view to the other, first the prisoner and the officers in the corridor, then Mr Nuñez carefully tying the cord from his trousers to the cell wall. At the same time that the Filipino is being moved into a holding cell at the far end of the corridor, Mr Nuñez is standing on a bunk and slumping forward, the cord tight around his neck. Before he dies, Mr Nuñez bangs on the walls of the cell with his fists.

The inquest heard from two officers – including Mr McIntosh – who were in the custody suite at the time. Both were with the Filipino man in the holding cell at the approximate time of Mr Nuñez’s death, but neither could recall hearing anything that might have alerted them to what was happening just a few feet away.

The inquest continues today.

Related Article:

15 June 2005 - Inquest shown cell death video footage


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