An open verdict, in an inquest, is supposed to be suggestive of unclarity. Yet this open verdict seems to be very clear indeed. Either Jean Charles de Menezes was lawfully killed, or he was not. The jury decided that he was not. Whether they would have gone further and decided that the killing was definitely unlawful is, I suppose, something we shall never know. But given the extraordinarily prejudicial summing up of the Coroner, Mr Justice Wright - who virtually instructed the jury to bring in a verdict of lawful killing - their refusal to be party to a traditional Establishment stitch-up is heartening.
Like many other people, I followed the progress of the inquest with increasing horror. The manner of Jean Charles's impromptu execution, a literal overkill, and the complacent and arse-covering response of the Metropolitan police, were sufficiently evident even before the long-delayed inquest began sitting. But even so the facts revealed in this case were shocking in the extreme. That the firearms officers were of the belief that de Menezes had been identified as a terrorist suspect may, perhaps, be allowed. Even so, the inquest revealed no reasonable grounds for their professed belief that he posed an imminent danger. They would seem to have put two pieces of information together - the fact that de Menezes was being followed by the police, and the fact that they, as firearms officers, had been dispatched to the scene - and concluded that they were under orders to kill him. But being under orders, since the Nuremburg war crimes trials, has been no defence; at least it is supposed to be no defence. However much incompetence among the higher police command may have led to the confusion, the facts on the ground were unambiguous: here was someone who may have been a suspect but who had given no indication that he was about to detonate a bomb. Yet no evidence was produced to suggest that the officers ever considered any other course of action. Given the awesome responsibilities that are laid upon police officers entrusted with guns, and the need for cool heads and rational consideration that the job entails, this is alarming.
Equally alarming, for me, is the tendency to argue from the undoubted bravery and less undoubted (but widely assumed) expertise of the firearms officers to excuse their actions. The Telegraph's Philip Johnston, for example, blogs today that
It is right that no blame should attach to the firearms officers who killed him. The argument over whether they identified themselves or not is somewhat redundant since they believed he was about to detonate a bomb and had no option but to shoot to kill. They acted bravely and deserve to be praised, not vilified.
But honest belief is not an excuse for killing a man if the belief is not reasonable or justified. And abundant evidence was offered in this inquest that it was not.
Then there is the conflict of evidence. The police - who had an opportunity to compare notes before submitting their evidence - claimed that a clear warning had been given before the fatal shots were fired. The passengers on the tube train - who do not seem to have had the advantage of conferring - were agreed that there was not. That might not, in itself, amount to unlawful killing. But it surely does raise serious questions about the truthfulness of the police account. Indeed, it ought to lead to charges being laid against the officers for perjury and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. It seems unlikely, though, that the police will be held to account - any more than they will be held to account for the unnecessary shooting of Mark Saunders. Holding police officers - or, indeed, any individual - to blame is increasingly not the British way. Instead, blame must be dispersed until, like a homeopathic remedy, it has been so diluted that there's none left.
One idea that, I hope, this inquest will put to rest is that Jean Charles de Menezes was a victim of terrorism - even, as the unmissed Sir Ian Blair claimed - the 53rd victim of the 7/7 London bombers. He was the victim of police officers who, while they may not have wished to kill an innocent man, were insufficiently attuned to the probability that he might not be armed. As the testimony of the independent witnesses made clear, he was neither behaving nor was he dressed like a man about to detonate a bomb. This would have remained the case (though the criticism of the police would be much more muted) even if he had been correctly identified as a suspect. The protocols under which the firearms officers acted, codenamed Operation Kratos, were designed in secret with advice from Israeli police at a time when suicide bombings were an almost daily occurrence on the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But, even in the fractured circumstances that existed in July 2005, London is not Jerusalem; the statistical possibility that Jean Charles de Menezes was a suicide bomber therefore very low. Operation Kratos, which has no legal standing and has never been scrutinised by Parliament, is apparently still in being. If it is remains the basis for police action, then a similar tragedy may happen again. This, indeed, was admitted by police, including the fame-hungry Brian Paddick, during the inquest. Worryingly, they seemed to believe that it was a price worth paying. It isn't.
Another frequently expressed view is that Jean Charles would have, statistically, been at a much higher danger of being killed by the police had he stayed in Brazil. That is true. It is also true that he would have been at greater danger from the police in the United States, or some European countries, or Russia. True, but irrelevant. It used to be the chief glory of the British police that they were citizens in uniform rather than an armed wing of the state; that our police were, by and large, unarmed; and that the police were as accountable as anyone else before the law. Deaths like that of Mr De Menezes might happen here less often than in Brazil, but that's not good enough. Deaths like his should NEVER happen here.
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