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Family calls for a judge and jury
Deepcut inquest, Issue 1447
sean-benton.jpg
Sean Benton, the first of four young army recruits to die of gunshot wounds at Deepcut Barracks in Surrey between 1995 and 2002
THE fresh inquest into the death of Sean Benton at Deepcut army barracks in Surrey in 1995 will have to decide whether “repeated and serious physical and mental abuse” of a known vulnerable young soldier at the out-of-control army base was a factor in his death.

Lawyers acting for Sean’s family said the inquest would also hear evidence suggesting he may have been involved in an exchange of fire with other soldiers on the night he died of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest.

At a pre-inquest hearing at the Old Bailey on 16 June, the judge-coroner Peter Rook QC was asked if he would sit with a jury. Paul Greaney QC, for civil rights campaigners Liberty and the Benton family, said: “Sean died whilst under the control of the state in circumstances in which his movements and environment were tightly controlled by the state. A jury would not only actually be independent of the state but would be, critically, seen to be independent of the state.”

Lack of welfare
Sean, 20, was the first of four young recruits to die of gunshot wounds at the base between 1995 and 2002 (Eyes passim). The first cursory inquest into his death, which heard nothing of his treatment at Deepcut, recorded a verdict of suicide. His family were granted a new hearing after a high court judge last year found that material long buried in Surrey Police files “cast some doubt” on the initial ruling.

Last year’s inquest concerning Cheryl James, the 18 year old who died at Deepcut from a single bullet wound to the head six months after Sean’s death, has already exposed much of the Surrey’s camp’s toxic regime. Judge Brian Barker QC, the coroner at that inquest who sat without a jury, was scathing about the general lack of welfare for young trainees, and staff shortages which left only one supervisor in charge of every 200 recruits. While he decided that for some inexplicable reason the “vivacious” recruit had turned her rifle on herself, he said she should never have been placed in the “dangerous situation” where she could do so.

The scope of that inquest was limited to the care and treatment Cheryl alone experienced at the base. This time lawyers want the coroner to allow evidence of assault or serious misconduct by named NCOs against other recruits – not just Sean. They argue that it not only illustrates a culture of violence and harassment, but also goes to the credibility of the NCOs as witnesses. Thanks to the 2006 review by Sir Nicolas Blake into the deaths, it is already documented that Sean had been subject to assaults and bullying and had allegedly lost three stone in weight in the months before his death.

Searching for the truth
Nicholas Moss, for the Ministry of Defence, said NCOs were not on trial and did not have the same protections in the inquest as they would in a criminal case. He also told the court that no evidence of any exchange of fire had been found by the army, the police or any of the subsequent re-investigations into the deaths.

However, the only reason the families are still searching for the truth so many years after the events is because of the abject failure of Surrey Police to preserve any evidence, interview witnesses or carry out even the most rudimentary forensic examination of the scene, weapons or clothing.

With the army, Surrey Police and lawyers representing individual NCOs arguing against a jury, and keen to curtail its scope, and with Sean’s family engaging their own pathologist, ballistics expert and psychiatrist, the inquest is set to follow a similar “adversarial” route to that of Cheryl James. Not least because Surrey Police has taken the extraordinary decision to instruct John Beggs QC again to defend its reputation.

The force had to apologise to Cheryl’s family for the “additional stress” caused by the aggressive tactics Beggs used last year at her inquest, particularly in his cross-examination of Cheryl’s father, James. Beggs was also heavily criticised for the way he questioned and accused Hillsborough victims while representing former South Yorkshire Police Chief Supt David Duckenfield in that inquest.

The coroner is expected to announce his decision about a jury in July. The inquest itself, which will hear from 120 witnesses and will last several weeks, will start in January.

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Private Eye Issue 1446