Judge rules on death of Thomas Orchard in custody

18 April 2019, 13:39 | Updated: 18 April 2019, 14:02

Thomas Orchard

A judge has ruled he cannot be sure a restraint belt placed across the face of a mentally ill man in police custody, contributed to him suffering a fatal cardiac arrest.

32-year-old Thomas Orchard died in hospital seven days after being arrested in Exeter in October 2012.

During his detention Mr Orchard, who had paranoid schizophrenia, was restrained and an emergency response belt was placed across his face.

The restraints were removed and the church caretaker was left in a locked cell, where he lay apparently motionless for 12 minutes before custody staff re-entered and started resuscitation.

A post-mortem examination found he died from a severe brain injury seven days after suffering the cardiac arrest.

The office of the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police has already admitted Health and Safety breaches, but denied the belt contributed to Mr Orchard's death.

A three-day trial of issue at Bristol Crown Court was held to resolve the disputed matters.

In his ruling, the judge said the burden of proof lay with the prosecution who had to show the belt played a "significant" role in Mr Orchard's death.

He said it was not clear from the CCTV evidence inside the police station that the ERB obstructed Mr Orchard's breathing.

In a written statement, Shaun Sawyer, the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall Police, said:

"Today Judge Lambert decided that he was not satisfied the use of the ERB on Thomas Orchard caused or contributed to his death.

"I respect this decision, indeed it has always been the position of Devon and Cornwall Police

"This matter is not complete as we await sentencing on May 3. It would be inappropriate to comment further until that point.

"My primary thought is for the family of Thomas Orchard. The last six and a half years is something I and no family would want to go through."

Alison Orchard, mother of Thomas said: 

''We have spent the past six and a half years, since tragically Thomas died in police custody, watching the same CCTV footage of him dying; listening to witness statements; reading reports; perusing documents which relate to the safety and wellbeing of those in police custody and witnessing the defensiveness of those representing Devon and Cornwall Police. We have consistently told those in authority how we perceive what happened to our much loved son and brother on 3 October 2012: we have always thought Thomas’ death was a needless one, caused – directly – by sloppy and dangerous practices, most especially the application of the restraint belt around his face and head, as well as the lack of care and negligence from the very organisation which should have been protecting him.

''As a family we are nothing but dismayed by the judge’s decision; it is hard to believe after all that we have witnessed. More than anything, we have always been hopeful that Thomas’ death would not have been in vain and that lessons could be learned from it. We therefore hope, despite his decision about the causation of Thomas’ death, that the judge will consider that both the culpability of Devon and Cornwall Police in their breach of Health and Safety regulations and the potential for harm by that breach is of the highest order when he makes decisions on sentencing.

''Thomas died when he was 32 years old. We could not then have ever imagined how long we would have had to sustain our fight for justice. Our thanks go to those whose expertise has guided us, especially to our solicitors at Hickman and Rose, to all those at the charity, INQUEST and for the support of other families who have also lost loved ones in police custody. Thanks go, too, to our family, friends and colleagues who care with us and for us.''