By Jack Holland
An official enquiry into the death of a U.S. citizen in Belfast in 1998 has confirmed that he died as a result of a trauma received after he was allegedly beaten by the Royal Ulster Constabulary.
The controversy surrounding his death was first revealed in the Irish Echo last year.
Forty-year-old John Hemsworth, who was born in Kearney, N.J., had worked in California was a heating engineer. He claimed that an RUC patrol had struck him on the head with a baton and kicked him as he lay on the ground. The alleged incident occurred in July 1997 in the aftermath of street disturbances. Hemsworth began to suffer severe headaches in November that year. At the end of December, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital, where he died of a massive brain clot on Jan. 1, 1998.
The official enquiry carried out under the direction of the Northern Ireland attorney general came a year after an independent investigation undertaken by Derek Pounder, professor of forensic medicine at the University of Dundee. Pounder had concluded that the alleged assault was the "direct underlying cause of death."
The official report issued on Oct. 9 found that "despite the time delay between the fatal cerebral infarct and the injury received . . . they are linked in terms of causation."
Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter
The enquiry was conducted by Professor Helen Whitwell, consultant pathologist to the Home Office in London. An examination of the victim’s brain revealed no evidence of disease that "may predispose to the formation of thrombus." Pounder likewise had found no evidence that the clot was the product of disease.
Both Pounder and Whitwell said that the time delay between the alleged assault and the death, although unusual, was not unique. Whitwell referred to a report in the Journal of Neurosurgery that reviewed 18 patients who had suffered cranial injuries followed by a clot. One had died two months after the trauma, and one four years later.
In a statement made three days after the incident, Hemsworth described how he was on his way home in the early hours of July 7, 1997 and had taken a side street to avoid the rioting that had been going on along the nationalist Falls Road. He said that a mobile police patrol pursued a group of youths into the street. According to his statement, the officers dismounted. "[They] were in front of me," he said. "One turned and came toward me. I said, ‘I’m just going home. I’m an American citizen.’ At that, he hit me with his truncheon. I fell to the ground. He called me a ‘Fenian bastard.’ 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 on the back with a truncheon."
Both the independent and official examinations found injuries on the jaw and head consistent with Hemsworth’s statement.
On hearing about the Home Office report, the victim’s widow, Colette Hemsworth, said that "legally" she was "glad — that was what I wanted to hear." But she said that it was still a "shock" for her to read what had happened to her husband.
John Hemsworth’s father, Michael, was critical of the RUC.
"It’s sad the RUC had nothing to say to us when John died," he said. "Only when the attorney general ordered the inquest did they talk to us. They’re supposed to uphold the law, but they broke the law."
The report on Hemsworth’s death comes at a time of growing controversy over the implementation of the Patten report on reforming the RUC.
According to Rep. Ben Gilman of New York: "The Hemsworth case, like that of so many other cases, makes it clear that we need a new beginning for policing in the north of Ireland, and that can only come about by full and faithful implementation of all of the Patten commission’s policing reforms."
The Independent Commission on Police Complaints supervised an investigation into the case. In February 1999 it said that its inability to obtain certain pieces of information made the investigation "currently impracticable."