Police CCTV error implicated in collapse of cyclist death trial
Trial of lorry driver fails to take place, but was it avoidable?
The prosecution of a lorry driver charged with causing the death of a cyclist by careless driving, was abandoned at the eleventh hour, in part, due to a failure by Greater Manchester Police to secure vital CCTV evidence.
After an eighteen month investigation the charges against lorry driver Wesley Lawrence, 31, were dropped over the weekend before his trial scheduled for Monday, January 31.
Mr Lawrence was driving the lorry which in August 2009 at Old Trafford, Manchester, was in collision with 25-year-old Harry Wilmers, a mental health support worker who was about to start a Masters degree in social work. Mr Wilmers’ partner was Rebecca Stephenson, the daughter of Sir Paul Stephenson, the former Chief Constable of Lancashire Constabulary and current Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service.
Mr Wilmers is believed to have been struck by the vehicle as it made a left turn at the junction of Seymour Grove and Talbot Road. Based on the file of evidence presented by the Greater Manchester Police’s Forensic Collision Reconstruction unit, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) deemed there to be sufficient evidence to charge the driver with causing death by driving without due care and attention.
A CPS spokesperson told road.cc: “When deciding whether there is enough evidence to charge, Crown Prosecutors must consider whether evidence can be used in court and is reliable. They must be satisfied there is enough evidence to provide a ‘realistic prospect of conviction’ against a defendant.
“Having initially reviewed the case, we were satisfied that there was a realistic prospect of conviction on a charge of death by careless driving and that it was in the public interest to bring a prosecution.
“However, as we approached the trial date, additional expert evidence made it impossible to proceed to trial. Before making the decision to discontinue the case, the CPS consulted two separate external barristers. Their advice was that the charge was no longer sustainable.”
The spokesperson continued: “In cases of this nature, the CPS relies heavily on expert evidence. In this case, that evidence was provided by a member of the Greater Manchester Police Collision Reconstruction Unit. His report was the cornerstone of the prosecution case and, with regard to its content, the decision was taken to prosecute Wesley Lawrence for causing death by careless driving.
“The prosecution have a duty of continuously reviewing cases and a number of conferences took place in the ensuing months. During these conferences, different scenarios were put to the expert regarding the varying positions of the defendant and the deceased at the time of the collision. A crucial element of those discussions was the likely view that the driver would have had through his various mirrors.
“The CPS received a copy of an expert report prepared on behalf of the defence which suggested that the defendant was not at fault. The police expert said that he largely concurred with the views of the defence. It was then apparent that the prosecution faced very real evidential difficulties.
“Two independent Counsel also reviewed the evidence and both concluded that there was no realistic prospect of conviction.”
So it seems that Greater Manchester Police’s Forensic Collision Reconstruction officer essentially undermined his own file of evidence by agreeing with an expert hired by the defence team that the driver may not have been at fault. But at this point, in terms of the evidence being heard and scrutinised at Crown Court, all was not yet lost. It should have been possible for the CPS to bring in another expert to review the evidence with a view to ensuring the case proceeded to trial.
However, road.cc has learned that the prosecution’s case relied heavily on CCTV footage from a pub, the Toll Gate Inn, which overlooked the scene of the incident. In order to get the prosecution back on track and proceed to trial, it would have been necessary for a different expert to review this footage and provide reassurance to the CPS that it would be possible to rebut the defence team’s interpretation of what might have occurred.
Only at this stage did it become clear that the footage in question had not been properly copied by the police and that the original footage from the pub had been deleted. Once this became evident the prosecution case, it seems, was effectively doomed.
Greater Manchester Police were initially reluctant to talk to road.cc about this procedural error but eventually issued us with the following statement from Chief Inspector Rachel Buckle, who said: "Our deepest sympathy remains with the family and friends of Mr Wilmers.
"Having recognised the complexities of the CCTV operating system, the investigating officers requested that the GMP Imaging Unit attend and recover footage of the incident.
“However, a later check of the recovered footage showed that some frames had not copied across. Regretfully, despite immediate contact with the CCTV owners, the original footage had been lost.
“All officers involved in this type of work have been reminded of the importance of conducting an early review of any recovered CCTV to ensure it matches with that viewed on the original operating system. The Visual Evidence Retrieval and Analysis Unit who work within GMP's Serious Crime Division are also now advising officers on CCTV recovery in these cases."
An inquest into the death of Harry Wilmers will now take place and there remains a possibility that civil proceedings against Mr Lawrence will be initiated.
The Wilmers family’s lawyer, Nadia Kerr, a Partner at Manchester solicitors, Pannone LLP said:
“The CPS had the option of filing for an action based on the lesser charge of ‘careless driving’, but due to time limitations that course is not now likely to be open to them. At least now there will be an Inquest into the circumstances surrounding Mr Wilmers’ death. We will of course be looking closely at the findings of that Inquest and advising our clients on any possible civil action.”
Here at road.cc we feel that generally, in the prosecution and sentencing of car and lorry drivers involved in fatal collisions with cyclists, the legal system provides little in the way of a deterrent effect to either the general public or the haulage industry.
In this particular case we understand that proximity mirrors were fitted to the cab but were incorrectly set, pointing back into the cab. Before the trial, the defence expert appears to have contested that even if they had been correctly set, the driver was still not at fault. Sadly his contention will not now be tested in a Crown Court and it will be left to a coroner’s inquest to record a verdict on how Mr Wilmers died.
Whatever the coroner decides, in terms of sending a message to motorists, HGV drivers and the haulage industry as a whole as to the vulnerability of cyclists, it seems that the loss of Harry Wilmers’ life may not have the impact it might otherwise have had.