Line of Duty’s DC Chloe Bishop was close to tears as she told of the death in custody of black architect Lawrence Christopher.
His tragic story was based on the murder of Stephen Lawrence in a racially motivated attack this week in 1993, and the lesser-known but no less shocking killing of Christopher Alder in a Hull Police station in 1998.
In last week’s episode of the hit BBC1 police drama, the visibly upset AC-12 detective, played by Shalom Brune-Franklin, described how officers were “laughing and making monkey noises while Christopher lay dying”.
This is just what happened to former Falklands War paratrooper Christopher in his final moments, as he choked to death in police custody in one of the worst known examples of systemic racism in the British justice system.
His sister Janet is still haunted by the inhumane way he died and the obstacles to truth and justice their family has encountered along the way.
She says: “Apart from the horror and frustration and sadness I felt that nobody was helping Christopher, there was always that question: ‘Why? Why would you leave someone like that?’
“You have to really disregard another human being to do that and that’s what’s haunted me over the years.”
Janet, who has been at the forefront of the family’s campaign for justice, says Christopher had a tough start
“Times were really difficult,” she says. “My mum was ill and we ended up in care. I was in care from a baby basically and we all stayed in the home until leaving age, which was 16.”
Christopher joined the army at 16, serving in the elite Parachute Regiment in the Falklands War and Northern Ireland, where he was commended for his service.
By 1998, aged 37, he had left the army and split from his wife, the mum of his two kids, and was working in Hull as a trainee computer programmer.
On March 31 that year he went clubbing with some mates in town and got into a scuffle with another reveller.
A punch knocked him to the ground where he hit his head. He was taken to Hull Royal Infirmary, where he was treated, then arrested for breach of the peace and taken to a nearby police station in a police van.
A witness said he was able to stand up straight and walk unaided as he left hospital. But by the time the van arrived at the station minutes later it was a different story.
Christopher had to be dragged into the building with his feet scrapping the floor. His belt was missing, his trousers were pulled down around his ankles and he had acquired some fresh injuries, including a missing tooth.
Hours later he took his last breaths lying face down, with his hands cuffed behind his back, choking in a pool of his own blood and vomit.
CCTV footage inside the Queens Gardens police station on the night shows him gasping repeatedly and loudly in distress, as a group of white officers stand around chatting and laughing, even directly dismissing his trauma as “acting”.
Some of the officers can be heard making racist monkey noises, as Christopher struggles to breathe for more than 10 minutes.
It is only when he stops breathing completely that they are seen trying to help. However, by then it is too late and when the paramedics arrive he cannot be revived.
Over 20 years on, no one has been held accountable for his death.
A seven-week inquest in 2000 delivered a verdict of unlawful killing and found Christopher’s death was due to positional asphyxia, which occurs when a person cannot get enough air due to the positioning of their body.
The verdict led to five police officers – Sergeant John Dunn and PCs Neil Blakey, Mark Ellerington, Nigel Dawson, and Matthew Barr – standing trial on charges of manslaughter and misconduct in a public office in 2002.
However, the case collapsed after the judge ordered the jury to acquit the defendants on all charges, on the grounds that they could not be safely convicted on the evidence put forward.
In 2004, four of the officers were granted early retirement on stress-related medical grounds, with lump-sum payouts and pensions.
In 2006 Humberside Police issued an apology after an Independent Police Complaints Commission report found Dunn, Blakey, Dawson and Barr guilty of a “most serious neglect of duty” and accused them of “unwitting racism”.
IPCC chairman Nick Hardwick said: “I believe the failure of the police officers concerned to assist Mr Alder effectively on the night he died were largely due to assumptions they made about him based on negative racial stereotypes.”
The IPCC said Ellerington was also involved but to a lesser extent.
But the agony of Christopher’s family did not end there. In 2011, they discovered the body in Christopher’s grave was not his.
Hull city council admitted his body was still at a mortuary, in six body bags, and a 77-year-old woman named Grace Kamara had been buried in his place.
Once again, no answers were provided and no one was held accountable, after the CPS said there was “no realistic prospect of a conviction for either misconduct in a public office, or the prevention of the lawful burial of a body”.
In fact, Janet says she was treated as if she was the one who had done something wrong.
“I got a phone call from the police liaison officer,” she says. “But there was a kind of defensiveness… It was like they were treating me like a suspect.
“The questions they asked were ridiculous, like: ‘What bus did you get to the funeral?’, ‘When you got there, where did you stay?’ And I thought, ‘This has nothing to do with Christopher’s body being left in the mortuary’.”
Adding to the trauma was the fact that the family had scattered the ashes of Christopher’s niece over the grave.
There was a further blow in 2013 when an IPCC investigation confirmed Humberside Police had put Janet under “improper surveillance” and spied on her and her supporters during Christopher’s seven-week inquest, listening into conversations between her and her lawyers.
An apology letter was issued by the force last year, calling the actions “inexcusable and unacceptable”.
Since 1990, over 1,700 black people have died in UK police custody or after contact with the police, according to figures compiled by the BBC. This is 8% of the total, yet black people make up only 3% of the population.
Christopher’s story was told in a show starring EastEnders’ Richard Blackwood at London’s Soho Theatre in 2019.
Now his case and others like it have been returned to public attention by Line of Duty and the murder of George Floyd. Janet says the stress of the past 23 years has badly affected her health, but she will not stop seeking justice.
he says: “Accountability of the state is needed.
“When that happens it’ll be like a domino effect. So many questions will need answers – from the CPS, the justice system, the police… It’s like when you keep sticking a plaster on a wound, it just gets worse, and when you clean it out it’s just so raw.”
Timeline of key events in the Christopher Alder’s case
April 1, 1998: Christopher hits his head during an altercation outside a nightclub in Hull. He is taken to hospital and discharged into police custody after being held on suspicion of breach of the peace. He later chokes to death on his own blood and vomit, face down on the floor of Queens Gardens police station.
May 1998: Five police officers are suspended in relation to an investigation into Christopher’s death.
July 1999: The CPS says it is charging all five with misconduct in a public office.
July 2000: Christopher’s inquest opens.
August 2000: Unlawful killing verdict. April 2002: The five tried at Teesside crown court on charges of manslaughter and misconduct in a public office.
June 2002: Case collapses after judge orders jury to acquit the defendants on grounds that they cannot be safely convicted on the evidence put forward.
December 2004: Four of the officers get early retirement on “stress-related medical grounds”, with compensation payments as well as pensions.
2011: Government pays out £20,000 to the Alder family after admitting breaching the Human Rights Act. A public apology is also issued.
November 2011: Alder’s body found in mortuary at Hull Royal Infirmary, 11 years after his family believed they had buried him.
February 2012: Grace Kamara’s remains exhumed from grave. CPS decides there is “no realistic prospect of a conviction for either misconduct in a public office, or the prevention of the lawful burial of a body” and no one is held responsible for the mix-up.
July 2013: An investigation is launched by the IPCC after Humberside Police find “information to suggest” Christopher’s sister, Janet Alder, was put under “improper surveillance” in 2000.
January 2015: IPCC finds evidence of a case for gross misconduct as it is confirmed Janet was under surveillance.
March 2018: The Guardian reports a leaked IPCC document concludes “evidence to support the conclusion that discrimination and bias is likely to have been a factor” in the surveillance.
August 2019: West End play Typical about Christopher’s case.