Category: Archive

Death of an American

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

The family of an American citizen who was allegedly beaten by the Royal Ulster Constabulary is bringing a civil suit against the police backed by an independent forensic report showing that he died as a direct result of his injuries six months after the incident.

The man, 40-year-old John Hemsworth, who was born in Kearney, N.J., alleged that the attack took place in the early hours of July 7, 1997 in Belfast, when he said he was beaten about the face and head after a police patrol had stopped him as he made his way home from a night out with friends.

In November of that year, Hemsworth suffered a minor stroke. He was hospitalized on Dec. 27, 1997, complaining of severe headaches, and died on Jan. 1 1998 of a "catastrophic" stroke. The forensic report, written by Professor Derrick J. Pounder of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Dundee in Scotland, concluded that the alleged assault was the sole "direct underlying cause of death."

Though Hemsworth was alone at the time of the incident, the family’s lawyer has obtained the names of several eyewitnesses to the attack, which it is alleged was unprovoked.

On the night of Hemsworth’s death there had been widespread rioting in Northern Ireland. On the Falls Road in West Belfast, what was described as a "localized" riot briefly flared late on the night of July 6. According to Hemsworth’s widow, Colette, John was on his way home from St. Gall’s Social Club.

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"He had tried to get a black taxi but couldn’t, so he walked," she said. To avoid the disturbances he stayed away from the main road.

"On my way home about 1 a.m. I was walking down Malcomson Street," Hemsworth related in his statement, made to his lawyer on July 10. "A crowd of fellas were running down Malcomson Street. They were on the other side of the road from me. They disappeared into Waterford Street. Police jeeps drove up Malcomson Street chasing these boys. There are bollards at the bottom of the street, so the police stopped. They got out. They were in front of me. One turned and came toward me. I said: ‘I’m just going home. I’m an American citizen.’ At that, he hit me in the face with his truncheon. I fell to the ground. He called me a Fenian bastard. I was lying on the ground. Another one was shouting, ‘Move, move you Fenian bastard.’ He kicked me on the left side of the jaw. I started to get up. Another one hit me on the back with a truncheon. I got up and walked to my wife’s house."

"I heard him crying as he came in," Mrs. Hemsworth remembers. "The peelers [police] beat me," she said he told her. "They broke my jaw." His wife says he "looked like the Elephant man — all swollen and bruised." Hemsworth set out for the nearby Royal Victoria Hospital alone as his wife had to remain at home to take care of their 2 1/2- year-old daughter. His statement continues:

"I saw the army and police at the gate of Dunville Park. There were stones being thrown at them. I explained I was going to hospital. One of them said, ‘Hi, boy.’ I jumped back. He said, ‘That’s my man.’ I went to the RVH and had X-rays taken."

Records show Hemsworth was examined in the hospital at 2:21 a.m.

Mrs. Hemsworth got a telephone call at 4 a.m. from a nurse informing her that her husband would have to stay in overnight. His jaw was broken and the side of his face and back were bruised. The notes made by the emergency medical officer on duty that morning refer to the injuries being consistent with being beaten with a stick, according to reliable sources.

Hemsworth was released later that day. Three days later, he made the statement to his lawyer containing the allegations against the RUC. His lawyer believes that the fact that he did this lends credibility to his client’s story.

"If he had been assaulted in the course of a riot, he could have claimed criminal injury from the Northern Ireland Office," explained Brendan Blaney, the family lawyer. "It was risk free. But no, John said he was clear about his course" — and the RUC involvement.

A changed man

Mrs. Hemsworth said that her husband’s personality changed over the course of the six months before his death.

"He wasn’t the same man after the beating," she said. "At the beginning of November he began to have breakdowns. He thought the world was against him. He was depressed and began crying a lot."

The doctor prescribed anti-depressant drugs.

Hemsworth, who was a heating engineer and had worked in California for several years in the 1980s, had been discussing with his wife the prospect of returning there to live. In 1997, he got an offer from a friend in California of an apartment and was seriously considering moving there in 1998. Two days before Christmas a strange blotch appeared on his face and he went to the doctor. On Dec. 27, he complained of severe headaches. He suffered a stroke and was hospitalized. John Hemsworth died five days later.

On Jan. 7, 1998, the RUC received a complaint by telephone from the Hemsworth’s family solicitor, followed by a letter on Jan. 8. The Independent Commission on Police Complaints was called in to supervise the police inquiry into the alleged assault. The inquiry lasted just over a year. On Feb. 2 1999, the ICPC sent a four-sentence letter to Hemsworth’s solicitor saying that the lack of certain pieces of information made the investigation currently impracticable. The police had been unable to obtain the statement John Hemsworth made to his solicitor on July 10, 1997 alleging the assault. The RUC also said it was unable to reach Mrs. Hemsworth, the widow to interview her.

The solicitor involved in the case, Brendan Blaney, says lawyers are often reluctant to share information with the ICPC knowing that it will be shared with the police and crown counsel, and is in conflict with their primary duty to their clients. Colette Hemsworth says that the RUC has not contacted her, though she is at the same address as when her husband was alive. She is puzzled as to why they have failed to reach her since she is also contactable through John’s father, Michael.

Amnesty probe

Three month’s after receiving the ICPC’s letter, the family contacted Amnesty International asking for help in obtaining an independent forensic opinion on the cause of John Hemsworth’s death. As a result of the request, Professor Pounder of the University of Dundee undertook an investigation, based on "the death certificate, neuropathology report, and autopsy report."

In a report dated Aug. 4, 1999 Pounder states that "the immediate cause of death is clear and beyond dispute. Mr. Hemsworth died of a cerebral infarction [stroke] brought about by a blood clot obstructing one of the major arteries passing between the neck and the brain . . . " The report also says that it is clear that "the cause of the blood clot in the artery was damage to the wall of the artery . . . and further that this damage to the wall of the artery pre-dated the formation of the blood clot."

The question is, how did this damage come about? Pounder considers the two options: disease or trauma.

"If the cause is natural disease then similar changes are to be anticipated in other arteries of the body. Examination of the corresponding left carotoid artery showed it to be entirely normal and examination of the arteries of the body generally [as indicated in the autopsy report] disclosed no natural disease."

Considering trauma as a possible cause of the arterial damage, Pounder found that "to produce such damage would require a significant impact to the right side of the neck in the area immediately adjacent to the angle of the jaw.

"There is a history of trauma resulting from an alleged assault, with a medical record of a fracture to the right side of the jaw."

However, the problem was the considerable lapse of time that occurred between the alleged assault and Hemsworth’s death. Pounder points out that though there was what he calls a "minor transient stroke" in November, the final "catastrophic stroke" did not take place until Dec. 27, and death not until five days later, six months after the alleged assault.

Pounder’s report acknowledges that while "delayed clotting . . . within an artery following trauma is well recognized," it typically takes place within days, not months. However, his report observes that such long delays while "uncommon" are recognized as "possible both from the perspective of our theoretical understanding of the mechanism involved and also from anecdotal case material."

The report’s conclusion is unequivocal:

"It is in my view highly likely that the trauma [i.e. alleged assault] was the sole direct underlying cause of death."

The ICPC is aware of Professor Pounder’s conclusions but says that evidence is still insufficient to proceed with the case.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, intends to highlight the case in its upcoming report on Northern Ireland.

The dead man’s father, Michael Hemsworth, is bitter about the lack of response he has had from U.S. authorities and politicians to whom he has written.

"He was proud to be an American and an Irish American, but, sadly, the politicians have let him down," said Michael Hemsworth, who described his son as "deploring hatred and bigotry."

In the meantime, Mrs. Hemsworth is pursuing a civil case against the police for the death of her husband, possibly the only American to die in Northern Ireland as a result of the Troubles.

"He thought as an American citizen he was safe," she said.

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