Belfast Telegraph

Belfast dad James McCotter took own life hours after release from custody, inquest told

By Angela Rainey

An inquest has opened into the death of a west Belfast father-of-one who took his own life hours after being released from police custody.

Coroner Susan Anderson heard how the family of James 'Jim' McCotter had concerns for his wellbeing as he had been experiencing suicidal thoughts.

In the weeks leading up to his death, the 29-year-old had sporadically been using non-prescribed medications such as lyrica, tramadol and diazepam, and had been drinking when his family called to his flat the morning of August 12, 2012.

They found him sitting in his Woodbourne Court flat around 11am with a black left eye, having been involved in an altercation at a party the night before.

Concerned that he would carry out his threat to take his own life, his sister Aine McCotter called 999 believing "he would be safer with the police".

Eight officers attended to arrest Mr McCotter on the basis that being drunk was a breach of his bail conditions, and a breathalyser recorded his blood alcohol content as "three times over the drink driving limit".

On taking Mr McCotter to the police car the officers claim he became disorderly by "resisting arrest", kicking, then spitting in one of their faces forcing them to handcuff his hands behind his back.

Reading out Ms McCotter's statement at Laganside Court yesterday, barrister Ian Skelt, counsel for the Coroner's Office, said she asked the police "not to leave him unattended" and believed that he would likely be detained overnight in a cell.

Ms McCotter also asked that the family was informed if he was to be freed as he had made a threat to take his life once he was released and they did not want him to be alone.

On ringing back she was then told that he had been released hours earlier, at around 7pm.

She said: "I was told that he was fine, he had just had a cup of tea and something to eat and was sleeping.

"Then when I rang back a girl answered and said she could not see his name, there was no record of him there.

"Around 9.20pm I rang through to the police exchange and they advised that Jim had been released. I said, 'Do you realise he's suicidal and that he should not have been let out without us being told?'

"I just went off on one, the girl [on the phone] was not helpful."

Concerned, Miss McCotter, her mother Carol Lagan and stepfather Stephen Lagan called to Mr McCotter's flat but found it in darkness. After driving around the town unable to find him they returned to the flat at around 12.15am, where Mr Lagan found his body.

A suicide note had been left in the letterbox and another found in the kitchen.

In a statement, his father Sean McCotter stated Jim had told him that once in the police vehicle officers "had kicked him in the shins". But a post-mortem carried out by Deputy State Pathologist Dr Alistair Bentley found "no evidence of assault".

It also reported that Mr McCotter had 19 injuries comprised of old and new bruises, and a mark "that was likely caused by a serrated edge being dragged across the skin" of his leg.

The court heard how the police were not legally able to detain Mr McCotter against his will for being drunk as he was arrested for breaching "pre-charge" bail and as he was over the age of 18 they were not obliged to inform his family of his release.

Sergeant Kim Dunn, who had been in the custody suite at Musgrave Police Station the day of Mr McCotter's arrest, said that the fact that he had been suicidal had been highlighted in red pen on the police's whiteboard.

He was also under constant supervision by CCTV and was subjected to cell observations every 15 minutes. A notice was also placed on Mr McCotter's file "red flagging" him so "if an officer met him in the street and checked his name, would be aware that he was high risk of suicide".

The hearing continues.

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