The death of Henry Foley: a 1985 case of police manslaughter

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The last successful prosecution of an on-duty police officer for manslaughter was in 1986, following the death of Henry Foley. Foley, a retired bus driver from Southport, was brutally beaten by a police officer while in custody.

The 67-year-old died of his injuries, thought to be caused by being kicked or stamped on. The officer, Alwyn Sawyer of Merseyside police, was found not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter, and was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Foley, a widower, had been playing dominoes and drinking at Southport railway club on 11 February 1985 with Frederick Rigby, his friend of 25 years. In evidence, Rigby later described Foley as “merry” on departure. “It was not my view that he was drunk.” However, Foley was arrested for being “drunk and incapable” and taken into the “drunk cell” at Southport police station shortly after midnight. Officers intended to release him the following morning, but decided to detain him further when he refused to mop up some urine in the cell.

When one officer, Ivor Richardson, went to let him out an hour later, Foley allegedly attacked him and Richardson had to call for help from fellow officers. Richardson went to hospital for facial injuries and Sawyer, a 45-year-old officer with more than two decades of experience, took over his duties. He had received medals and commendations for his plainclothes work.

Judge William Macpherson, who would later lead an inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence, presided over the case. The excoriating report that followed the Lawrence inquiry ignited a nationwide debate about policing culture and is widely considered a significant moment in the history of the British criminal justice system.

Manchester crown court heard how Sawyer attacked Foley, who was handcuffed. An autopsy showed internal injuries to his kidney and spleen, as well as ruptured bowels, likely to have been caused by being stamped on or kicked. He was taken to hospital after complaining of stomach pain and died that evening.

Sawyer denied assaulting him, but offered no other explanation for his injuries. When Richardson asked Sawyer whether he gave Foley a “good wellying”, Sawyer replied: “You have nothing to worry about.”

On sentencing Sawyer, Macpherson said: “This is a tragic day for you. The jury found you did not intend really serious harm, but to assault a 67-year-old man lying in a cell is a terrible thing.”

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