Deaths at Deepcut army barracks
The Deaths at Deepcut Barracks is a series of incidents that took place involving the deaths in obscure circumstances of four British Army trainee soldiers at the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut in the county of Surrey, between 1995 and 2002.
The fatal shootings, self-inflicted according to legal authorities that investigated them at the time of the original events, of recruits in repetition in similar circumstances at the same facility, in a comparatively limited period of time, drew substantial press and media attention to the incident, and became an extended legal contest between the families of the trainee soldiers concerned and the legal authorities involved as to what had actually occurred.
The trainees were in Phase 2 of the British Army's training syllabus with its Royal Logistics Corps at the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut, in Surrey, when they lost their lives through rifle-fire in a series of similar incidents over a five-year period from 1995-2002.
- On 9 June 1995, Private Sean Benton (20 years of age), from Hastings, East Sussex, England, died from five bullet wounds in his chest after going on an unauthorized lone patrol of the Barracks' perimeter.
- On 27 November 1995, Private Cheryl James (18) from Froncysyllte, Llangollen, Wales, died from a single bullet wound in her head, her body was found in a wood not far from her abandoned guard post.
- On 17 September 2001, Private Geoff Gray (17) from Seaham, County Durham, England, died from two gunshot wounds in his head whilst on guard duty, having left colleagues to carry out a lone prowler patrol in contravention of the routine Barracks' guard-duty procedure.
- On 23 March 2002, Private James Collinson (17) from Perth, Scotland, died from a single gunshot wound in his head whilst performing guard duty, his body being found near the Barracks' perimeter fence.
Initial legal proceedings
In the original public inquests, held after each individual death, the Coroners' verdicts reached following an investigation by the Royal Military Police and Surrey Police was one of suicide in the case of one of the recruits (Sean Benton), with the other 3 deaths receiving open verdicts. Over the course of several years the families of the trainees challenged the original investigations, and began a sustained legal campaign to have the circumstances of the deaths publicly re-examined. The British press also gathered further accounts from other recruit soldiers who had been at the barracks at the same time when shootings occurred, uncovering a disturbing picture of abuse of trainees in the facility by elements among its training staff, and criticised the original investigations into the incidents for a lack of a forensic examination of evidence. Parliamentary criticism followed and a reconsideration of the scope of the investigations and scrutiny of training within the Ministry of Defence.
A later review/re-investigation by Surrey Police treated the four deaths as potentially related. An investigation consequent to this finding, also by Surrey Police, identified a number of failures of the Army's duty of care at the barracks, leaving the opportunity and motive for suicide available. Its findings were rejected by most members of the families who, following the series, sought and in most cases, still seek a judicial inquiry into the circumstances. The findings led to media and families' criticism of the army investigations of the deaths over record keeping, transparency and particularly maintenance of evidence and forensic material.
Questions in Parliament
After questions in the House of Commons during 2003 and 2004, three Lords asked the government for a public inquiry in November 2004. A response was issued through its whip in the Lords Baroness Crawley:
|“||My Lords, the Government are not so far convinced that a public inquiry will achieve additional information to that already achieved through all the various police, Army and coroner investigations and inquiries. They have already reported. However, as my noble friend said in his supplementary question, a further review by a fully independent figure was announced by the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the House of Commons. The Government are not complacent on these matters.||”|
The Ministry of Defence in 2004 expanded its relationship with the 'Adult Learning Inspectorate' to provide independent oversight of all British Armed forces training.
In December 2004 a military law QC, Nicholas Blake of Matrix Chambers, was commissioned by the Ministry of Defence to independently review of the cases with the voluntary co-operation of involved parties. In March 2006 he published a 397 page report entitled 'The Deepcut Review' with his findings, which concluded that it was probable that the deaths were self-inflicted, but criticised a number of aspects of the Deepcut Barracks training centre at the time of the deaths, which the Report suggested could be construed as having played a role in the suicides.
The points identified by the report were:
- The training environment at Deepcut causing low morale through poor accommodation, limited recreational facilities, and the balance between privacy and dormitory life.
- Ill-disciplined access to firearms at the barracks.
- Poor supervision of trainees.
- A detrimental culture in the barracks had taken root involving ill-discipline, bullying and unofficial punishments.
- A systemic failure of the means for complaint within the barracks.
- Low quality instructors on the barracks' staff.
A report issued by the Army Board of Inquiry in response to the Blake Report was due to be published in December 2007, but was delayed by the Ministry of Defence until May 2009. On release it supported the Blake Report's findings and returned open verdicts on the deaths of the recruits.
The Deaths at Deepcut Barracks, with their obscure circumstances, with questions being asked as to whether they were suicides or foul play by an unknown third party(ies), have drawn substantial coverage in the British media, both in Fleet Street's tabloid and broadsheet titles, and in television news programmes and documentaries. In December 2002 the British Broadcasting Corporation's Panorama television current affairs programme broadcast an investigation into the barracks at the time of the deaths, cataloguing an abusive culture towards recruits among elements of the training staff, and naming a particular non-commissioned officer as being a problem in this regard. Articles by journalists Brian Cathcart and Heather Mills critical of the investigations featured in Private Eye in January 2010, and the publication has been consistently critical of these judgements and supported the families' appeals for further investigation. These criticisms draw on the later investigations to suggest the initial forensic investigations were flawed. Cathcart has also been critical of the treatment of the four cases in the media.
On 18 July 2014, the High Court of Justice ordered a second inquest into the death of soldier Pte Cheryl James following a judicial review brought by her family. The judge found “an insufficiency of inquiry” into her death. The original inquest, held in 1995 soon after her death, lasted less than one hour and recorded an open verdict. Surrey Police was criticised for its handling of the case, Mr. Justice Thornton stating that it had at first refused full disclosure of the reinvestigation report to Pte James's family. Surrey Police subsequently handed over 44 lever arch files of documents pertaining to the case after being notified that an application for an Order for Disclosure was about to be made against it. The force said it had now voluntarily provided all relevant material to the family – since being first requested to in early 2012 – and what had been disclosed "affords fresh grounds for an inquest". The documents handed over included "important material relating to ballistics, the noise of the gunshot, bullet fragments, the finding of the body, the credibility of some witnesses, and further witnesses". The ruling meant that new inquests were also likely to follow into the deaths of the other three trainee soldiers.
In April 2015, it was reported in Private Eye that, "on the force's own admission, it has still only handed over 75 % of the material it holds" in relation to Pte Cheryl James and that the force had made legal submissions to the Coroner Mr. Barker to delay the new inquest into her death "indefinitely". Private Eye also commented that Pte James's family, "should not be forced to wait any longer by the machinations of the police force which has let them down so many times before". The BBC reported Pte James’ father, Des James, as saying: "It's insensitive that they're delaying it. It's been really tough for us getting to this point. I made the mistake of relaxing and thinking I could leave it to the legal process." Advocacy group Liberty funded lawyers to act for the family saying the delay would: "have a devastating impact on Mr and Mrs James. They have come so far and made so much progress only to have Surrey Police make this eleventh hour request to delay matters. It is intolerable."
In May 2015, Private Eye reported: "Revelations last week that the ‘yellow’ fragment of bullet recovered from the body of teenager Cheryl James [...] did not appear to match the ‘red’ army issue ammunition raises serious questions about the botched investigations and inquiries over 20 years into the deaths". The report added: "The assumption was always that she had committed suicide, even though there was no evidence to connect the SA80 weapon alongside her body with her death: no fingerprints were collected from the rifle; ammunition from it was inexplicably destroyed; the clothing Cheryl was wearing was never examined forensically; and, crucially, the bullet fragment said to have been collected at post-mortem, which we now know was ‘yellow’ (or brass, rather than copper-coated), had curiously disappeared". The magazine added that there was "material to suggest Cheryl had been the victim of serious harassment and sexual violence", which it said had "scandalously […] remained buried" in Surrey police files despite subsequent reviews of the force's initial investigation by Devon and Cornwall Police and the Blake review. Pte James’ parents argued, through their QC, for their daughter's body to be exhumed in the hope of recovering further bullet fragments. Coroner Mr Barker QC postponed making what he described as the "difficult and unusual" step of ordering an exhumation, but rejected the suggestion from Surrey police to delay the inquest and hold it alongside those of the other Deepcut recruits. The coroner announced that there would be a further pre-hearing on Thursday September 10, 2015 and that the full inquest would be held between 1 February and 24 March 2016.
At the September 2015 pre-inquest hearing, the Coroner's Court in Woking was informed that Pte James’ body had been exhumed the previous month and that a post-mortem examination had been carried out by two pathologists, during which metallic fragments were recovered for ballistic analysis. Her family had attended a short reburial service, also in August 2015. The James family's barrister, Alison Foster QC, said that the experts conducting the ballistic analysis "ought not to have a significant connection either with the MoD [Ministry of Defence] or indeed a police force and certainly no connection with Surrey Police" because of what she called a "considerable shadow" over the initial handling of the case.
On 3 June 2016, the appointed Coroner (the Recorder of London) ruled that her death was suicide. He said that she died as a result of a "self-inflicted shot" which she fired in an "intended and deliberate act". He added: "We have explored as best we can what could be unearthed at this late stage within the legal constraints I am bound by. Clear answers as to why are just not there to be seen."
The family rejected the conclusion – her father said he felt there had been a "gaping hole [in the evidence] and [did not] believe the evidence led to this verdict". Additionally, he described Deepcut as a "toxic and horrible place for a young woman", and called for a public inquiry into the culture of the barracks. Former head of the army, General Lord Dannatt said that there should be a public inquiry. The current head General Sir Nick Carter said "If that’s the best method of getting to the heart of the matter then I guess that should be the way that we go."
On 14 October 2016 Mr Justice Collins ruled a new inquest could take place into the death of Pte Sean Benton as fresh evidence had cast "some doubt" over the conclusion of the first hearing in 1995.
At a fresh pre-inquest hearing at the Old Bailey on 16 Jun 2017, a 10-point list was presented widening the scope to look at all the circumstances of Sean Benton's death. It included the details of how he died and whether there was “any third-party action” involved in the death.
Pte Benton's inquest began 30 January 2018 and concluded 6 months later. On 18 July appointed Coroner Judge Peter Rook QC ruled that his death was from suicide, caused by multiple gunshot wounds to the chest during a dispute after taking a weapon from a fellow soldier. The Coroner criticised Surrey Police's original investigation. Concerns were raised over the initial investigation which was conducted by the Royal Military Police including lack of witnesses, no fingerprints were taken, and no evidence given about Benton's life in the barracks. The Coroner Peter Rook QC also described what had been revealed in the investigations as a 'toxic culture' at the barracks, and said Pte. Benton was frequently the recipient of harsh treatment.
Benton's family accepted the suicide verdict but criticised Surrey Police and the Army. The family asked Surrey Police to open a criminal investigation because of multiple examples of testimony given during the inquest that described violence, bullying, and intimidation at Deepcut Barracks. Sean Benton's sister Tracy Lewis is quoted as saying, "Sean was a victim in a nasty game".
Following the Coroner's verdict, Brigadier Christopher Coles, Head of Army Personnel Services, apologised to the Benton family and accepted that there had been a failure to give Pte. Benton welfare support during his time in the barracks.
In March 2015, the family of Pte. Geoff Gray demanded a fresh inquest after receiving 16,000 pages of new evidence from Surrey Police. At the original inquest, which lasted four hours, only 20 pages of evidence had been presented. Gray's father told the Daily Mirror: "I can’t go into what I’ve seen in the new pages, but it is all stuff that was not seen by the coroner at the original inquest into Geoff’s death. […] We were very, very naive. We should have had representation. It is pretty definite that we will be making an application to have a new inquest." The additional material was released following a legal request from counsel representing his family. The force said that it had "agreed to this request on a voluntary basis" adding that "Surrey Police is not reinvestigating the deaths, but is committed to providing disclosure to the families through their legal teams and will provide the appropriate support for any potential inquests in the future."
On 28 November 2017, Lord Justice Bean and two other judges sitting at the High Court of Justice ruled it was "necessary or desirable in the interests of justice" for a fresh inquest to be held into the death of Pte Geoff Gray. They ordered the inquest in 2002 should be quashed with its verdict and findings. Justice Bean said the scope of the new inquest "and the issue of whether the coroner should, or should not, sit with a jury, should be a matter for the coroner".
20 July 2018 at a pre-inquest hearing at the Old Bailey it was reported that Private Gray could have been shot by another trainee at the barracks. John Cooper QC representing Geoff Gray's family told the hearing the main issue was "simply, who pulled the trigger". Mr Cooper also added that there was evidence of "systemic failings" at Deepcut and allegations of a "lack of procedure and lack of protection for these young recruits".
Pte. Gray's second inquest began on 26 February 2019 at Woking Coroner's Court. Judge Peter Rook QC was appointed as the officiating Coroner, the same judge who presided over Pte. Benton's second inquest 12 months earlier. Again there was to be no jury. At the start of the second inquest the Ministry of Defence denied claims that key internal reports cataloguing life at Deepcut Barracks would not be submitted as evidence. An anonymous letter sent to John Cooper QC, the Gray family's barrister, made a series of claims about how the inquest would operate. The letter, which was apparently written by someone with detailed knowledge of previous inquests into the deaths of recruits at Deepcut, stated: “It has been made clear that other source documents detailing the situation in 2001-03 are not to be part of the new evidence regarding the Gray statement for the upcoming inquest, and that the statement structure as set out for Benton is to be maintained.”
The letter further stated that the British Army intended to withhold from the new inquest material in its possession contemporaneous with Gray's death that showed that its senior command echelon responsible for the external supervision of the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut, had been repeatedly notified that it was in a state of disciplinary disorder, but had failed to correct the situation. The Ministry of Defence's legal representatives issued a statement that there was no truth in the anonymous letter's allegations.
The series of deaths at the Princess Royal Barracks, Deepcut, were used as the basis for a theatrical production entitled Deep Cut (2008) by Philip Ralph, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, followed by a run at the Tricycle Theatre in London. Another theatre play based upon the events, focusing on the death of Pte. Gray, entitled Geoff Dead: Disco for Sale, written by Fiona Evans, was performed in October/November 2008 at the 'Live Theatre' in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
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