Officer who killed himself cleared over prison death — (The Scotsman)

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The Scotsman

3 October 1998


A PRISON officer who hanged himself in a fit of depression after the trauma of being involved in two prison suicides was yesterday cleared of blame for one of the deaths.    Sheriff Peter Hamilton ruled at the fatal accident inquiry into the death of James Moir, 37, a murderer, that there were no failures on the part of the authorities at Perth Prison where Moir was found hanged last August.

James McAllister, 33, a prison officer from Dundee, was on patrol on the night when Moir hanged himself and had been responsible for checking on him as he was deemed an escape risk. He helped to cut Moir down the next morning.

Mr McAllister had been off work for several months after the incident and it is understood he was depressed because of his involvement with Moir’s suicide and an earlier suicide incident.

The fatal accident inquiry had been due to start at Perth Sheriff Court in July but was adjourned after Mr McAllister hanged himself in a friend’s flat in Dundee the day before he was to have been a principal witness at the inquiry. He died later in hospital.

The inquiry heard yesterday that Moir, who had been due for release after serving nearly 20 years for murder, was found dead seven hours after hanging himself despite an hourly watch on his cell. He had written a number of letters and there were entries in a personal diary he kept in his cell indicating that he intended to commit suicide.

Sheriff Hamilton ruled that there were no failures in the system that could have contributed to the death of Moir. He also accepted that Mr McAllister could not have done anything to prevent the suicide.

Moir, from Aberdeen, had taken part in a training for freedom programme last year but was sent back to Perth from a local hostel after being classed as an escapee, following a late return to the hostel.

A prison officer, Brian McCombie, said Moir had been on escape observation, meaning he would be checked every hour.

Craig Renton, 29, a security supervisor, said that when he went into the cell after 6am with Mr McAllister, they found Moir hanging behind the door. Mr McAllister had cut the noose, which had been torn from a bedsheet and tied around an electrical fitting. Moir’s bed had been stuffed to give the appearance of a body shape.

Dr Louise Eccles, 33, who had examined Moir, said he had not given the impression of being suicidal and that there had been no indication he should have been put on a suicide watch, which involved checks every 15 minutes. After examining the body, she estimated the time of death at 10:50pm.

June Odell, 48, a nurse at Penningham open prison where Moir had spent time, said she was aware of a prior suicide attempt in 1995, and that Moir had been prescribed the antidepressant Prozac.

She said she had been aware that he had been late returning from a five-day leave to Aberdeen, and that police investigating the Scott Simpson murder had been looking for him. “He felt very bad because this aspersion was cast on him and involved his family,” she said.

Ms Odell said she had no fears he would harm himself despite the stressful situation, however she later referred to a letter from Moir, written on the night of his death, which read: “I never lasted long in the TFF (training for freedom). It is 9:30pm and I hope to be in Heaven at 10pm. My life has come to an end and I can’t take any more prison. I was never happy in my life and I hope in death God will be good to me.”

A statement taken from Mr McAllister was read to the court. He said he had carried out regular checks and Moir had never been out of bed to his knowledge. “His bed appeared to be occupied a but with hindsight he may not have been there.” The officer said the cell light was not switched on and he used his own pencil torch. In the morning, he said, he noticed someone behind the door.

Sheriff Hamilton returned a formal verdict, saying there were no defects in the systems of work or failure on the part of the prison authorities that in any way contributed to the circumstances of the death.