Deepcut deaths: Major decisions expected at first Sean Benton pre-inquest review

15 June 2017

A coroner is tomorrow expected to make crucial decisions about the fresh inquest into the death of Private Sean Benton at Deepcut barracks in 1995.

At the first pre-inquest review in the case, at 2pm at the Old Bailey, His Honour Judge Peter Rook QC is likely to rule on the scope of the fresh inquest and whether a jury will be called.

He will decide whether the case engages Article 2 of the Human Rights Act – if it does, this means the inquest would have to investigate the wider circumstances of Sean’s death, as well as its direct cause.

Sean, 20, 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 an internal Army investigation which his family fear was rushed and 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, represented by Liberty, applied for a second inquest in July 2015, and 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 access vast amounts of evidence held by Surrey Police about his death.

Linda Benton died in May 2015, having never discovered the truth about her son’s death.

Background

Sean’s death was immediately investigated by the Army’s internal police force, the Royal Military Police, rather than by civilian police.

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.

In the years since, many people have stated publicly and to his family that they believe he endured vicious and prolonged physical and psychological bullying at the barracks.

As with the other Deepcut deaths, 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.

Tracy Lewis, Sean’s older sister, said: “It’s been 22 years since we lost Sean, so it’s bittersweet that we are only now starting to get some answers about what he went through at Deepcut barracks.

“It’s a real tragedy that our parents are no longer with us after they fought so long and it’s a scandal that Sean’s death was not properly investigated at the time. We have faith in the newly appointed Coroner and hope that he will help us to uncover the truth.”

Emma Norton, lawyer for Liberty and solicitor for Sean’s family, said: “This Government continues to chip away at human rights and other legal protections for our soldiers.

“Cases like Sean’s show how vital it is that serving men and women receive the care and support they need and, if things go wrong, that independent investigations are conducted to fix things or learn lessons. 

“This grieving family has had to wait 22 years for answers and we sincerely hope this fresh inquest – achieved only thanks to the Human Rights Act – will finally help them learn the truth.”

Contact Liberty press office: 0207 378 3656 / 07973 831 128 / pressoffice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk

Notes

  • If anyone has any information about the death of Sean Benton, please email militaryjustice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.
  • Photos of Sean are available at: https://www.dropbox.com/sh/lt9xawu9xkaqwic/AABOkBiKOR1Yit9ehY2hOcI5a?dl=0.
  • Article 2 of the Human Rights Act – which protects the right to life – requires an effective, proper investigation be carried out into all deaths where there is State involvement. 
  • Private Cheryl James, 18, died at Deepcut in November 1995, Private Geoff Gray, 17, in September 2001 and Private James Collinson, 17, in March 2002. Liberty also represents the family of Pte Collinson and of Pte James.
  • Tomorrow’s hearing comes a year after the conclusion of a fresh inquest into the death of Private Cheryl James, which exposed the toxic, unsafe and sexualised environment in which Cheryl, Sean and other Deepcut recruits lived.