Call for civilian police to investigate all military crimes after highly critical inquest verdict

By agency reporter
July 20, 2018

The Coroner in the inquest into the 1995 death of Private Sean Benton at Deepcut Barracks recorded a verdict of suicide, delivering a narrative verdict that severely criticised serious failures in duty of care at Deepcut barracks.

His Honour Judge Peter Rook QC delivered his conclusions at Woking Coroner’s Court on 18 July 2018 following a wide-ranging inquest which began in January and heard evidence about Sean and life at the Surrey camp from 174 witnesses.

The Coroner said:

  • "The Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) in charge of Sean’s troop, Sergeant Andrew Gavaghan, physically assaulted and humiliated him on numerous occasions.
  • Sergeant Gavaghan physically assaulted at least 10 other trainees – including violently assaulting teenage girls, assaulting a young male trainee with a broom handle, punching and kicking others and smashing one trainee’s head on a radiator.
  • NCOs used physically excessive or overly repetitive punishments at Deepcut that went well beyond legitimate sanctions.
  • Ratios of senior staff to trainees were “wholly inadequate”, with one NCO in charge of up to 400 recruits at times.
  • There was no welfare officer or welfare policy at Deepcut.
  • The investigation into Sean’s death was “woefully lacking”.
  • Sean died of blood loss caused by self-inflicted gunfire and there was no third-party involvement in his death. He persuaded a fellow trainee to hand him a gun after being told he was to be discharged from the Army.
  • Senior officers failed to warn recruits that Sean was not to have access to weapons. Had they given that simple instruction, Sean would not have got hold of a weapon and would not have taken his own life.
  • There was “ample evidence” available to NCOs that Sean was vulnerable, but they did little to help him."

Liberty – which represents Sean’s family – has warned that serious crimes including rape, sexual assault and grievous bodily harm can still be investigated by the Army’s internal police force, the military police, instead of a civilian force. Many assaults including those suffered by Sean can still be investigated by a soldier’s own Commanding Officer and not referred to any kind of police at all.

The military police lack the resources and experience to competently and independently investigate the most serious crimes – as demonstrated by the collapse of a recent criminal trial involving allegations that training instructors at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate had committed serious assaults on junior recruits and the very strong critical remarks of the Judge Advocate. 

Sean’s family believe vulnerable young soldiers today could still go through the same experiences Sean did 23 years ago.

Sean, 20, from Hastings, was found with five bullet wounds to his chest on 9 June 1995 – shortly after he had been told he was to be discharged from the Army. He was the first of four young soldiers to die of gunshot wounds at the Surrey barracks between 1995 and 2002. 

His death was followed by a brief investigation by the military’s internal police force, which was rushed and grossly inadequate. They went on to spend more than 20 years fighting for the thorough inquest they and their son deserved.

Sean’s sister Tracy Lewis and his twin brother Tony Benton, who are represented by Liberty, applied for a second inquest in July 2015. This was granted in October 2016.

The application was made possible only after Sean’s late mother Linda Benton used the Human Rights Act to finally access vast amounts of evidence held by Surrey Police about his death. Linda died in May 2015, having never discovered the truth about what happened to Sean.

Pte Sean Benton’s older sister, Tracy Lewis, said: “In the last few months of his life, Sean had nowhere to go. If there had been a good, independent complaints system, or if he had known he could have reported the assaults he suffered to the police, he might have got the help he needed. But at Deepcut, the people who were causing him terrible problems were the same people he would have had to ask for help. So he was stuck.

“The Army will say things are different today. I don’t believe enough has changed.

“If Sean – or a vulnerable young man like him – joined the Army today, I worry that he could go through the same thing. I fear that another family today might have to endure what mine has for 23 years. Our soldiers are still subject to an inferior, second-class justice system – less fair, less thorough and less independent than the civilian one.”

Emma Norton, Head of Legal Casework at Liberty and solicitor for the Benton family, said: “Private Sean Benton was routinely attacked and humiliated at Deepcut barracks. He had nowhere to turn for help, and his mental health fell apart.

“Myth-busting recruitment campaigns might claim things are different now – but we still see soldiers failed by a closed-ranks military culture that resents outside oversight.

“When soldiers are assaulted or face sexual violence at work, the Army must guarantee civilian police will investigate those crimes. The men and women who fight for our country deserve equal justice.”

Sean’s death in 1995 was immediately investigated by the Army’s own police force, the Royal Military Police, rather than by civilian police. Surrey Police acknowledged this failure during the fresh inquest and apologised for it.

His family estimate the initial inquest – which took place a month later – lasted less than two hours. It heard evidence from just six people.

Sean’s medical and mental health records were not obtained and no evidence was sought or given about his experiences at Deepcut. The Coroner recorded a verdict of suicide.

A criminal investigation carried out by Surrey Police in 2002 and 2003 concluded there was no evidence of third-party involvement. The families were told very little about what had happened and were not given access to the evidence uncovered by police.

In 2012, Liberty – acting on behalf of Sean’s mother Linda – used the Human Rights Act to insist Surrey Police give her access to all evidence held by the force about her son and his death so they could apply for a fresh inquest. Surrey Police agreed to disclose all relevant materials – a process that finally finished in 2015. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/26358)

Liberty also represents the family of Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut on 27 November 1995. A fresh inquest into her death in 2016 revealed life at the barracks to be chaotic and dangerous for the young trainees, who had unrestricted access to alcohol, minimal supervision and virtually no welfare support. Liberty also acts for the family of Private James Collinson (17) who died at Deepcut on 23 March 2002

Private Sean Benton (20) died on 9 June 1995. Private Cheryl James (18) died on 27 November 1995. Private Geoff Gray (17) died on 17 September 2001. Private James Collinson (17) died on 23 March 2002.

* Tracy Lewis's full statement is available here

* Liberty https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/

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