Harry Stanley: a tragic case of mistaken identity

Harry Stanley: a tragic case of mistaken identity

Say Their Names — Harry Stanley was a beloved father, husband and friend. This is the story of his death at the hands of the Metropolitan Police, which wreaked havoc on his family and sparked a fight for justice against callous institutional powers.

On an otherwise quiet Wednesday evening on 22 September 1999, at around 7.45pm, Irene Stanley was standing in her kitchen in Hackney, east London, cradling her baby grandson when she heard what sounded like two loud gunshots ring out. Glancing out her window, she saw throngs of neighbours filling the street. With two-year-old Kyle wrapped in her arms, she ventured outside to see what the furore was about. From a distance, she and others noticed the feet of what looked like a dead body. 

Unknown to her at the time, Irene had actually heard the police bullets that killed her husband, Harry, who was shot dead by the Metropolitan Police less than 100 yards from their terraced home, where they lived with their two youngest children, Charlene and Jamie. 

Only ten days prior to the shooting, Harry, a 46-year-old Glaswegian, cherished by family members for his dark sense of humour and “heart of gold”, had life-saving surgery, which removed a cancerous tumour from his colon. Shortly after he was given the all-clear. “Every day was precious at this stage,” says Irene, who had celebrated her 26th wedding anniversary with Harry in 1998. “He was just happy to be alive – to see his kids, his grandkids, his family.”

On that fateful Wednesday in 1999, Harry’s main focus for the day was to mend his brother’s coffee table, which had been broken at one of the family’s characteristically buoyant house parties. After a few half-hearted attempts to fix the coffee table leg at his brother’s house, he decided to work on it at home, wrapping the leg in a blue plastic bag. 

He visited a few pubs on the way, the final being The Alexandra, a short distance from his home, for a moment of respite. Inside, he placed the bag-wrapped table leg on the table in front of him, ordered one lemonade, then promptly left, oblivious to a call that was being placed by an on-edge bystander.

Someone had seen the shape of the table leg and misidentified it as a sawn-off shotgun. They had come to this fatal conclusion by guessing that Harry’s Glaswegian drawl and red hair were surefire signs that he was Irish – and, by extension, some kind of Republican gunman on a pre-rampage pitstop. 

Called to the scene, at the junction of Fremont Street and Victoria Park Road in south Hackney, two marksmen from the Metropolitan Police’s specialist SO19 armed response unit, Inspector Neil Sharman and PC Kevin Fagan, jumped out of their car and positioned themselves, contrary to best practice, in an open area from which they had no cover. Shouting “armed police, drop the gun”, they approached Stanley from behind and claimed he turned around “in a slow, deliberate, fluid motion” to aim the table leg at them, at which point they shot him, once in the hand and another time – lethally – in the head. 

On 24 December 2000, the Crown Prosecution Service announced that the SO19 officers would not face criminal charges. Two years later, the jury at the first inquest returned a unanimous open verdict after the coroner of St Pancras Coroners’ Court in London, Dr Stephen Chan, controversially instructed them not to return a verdict of unlawful killing.

Chan had also refused to allow family barrister Tim Owen QC to cross-examine the officers, and allowed Harry’s “irrelevant” decades-old convictions from when he was a young man to be admitted as evidence. “The first inquest was highly charged,” recalls Owen, saying that the coroner made a number of rulings that protected the police from effective scrutiny.

On 7 April 2003, Irene and the family won a High Court ruling quashing the open verdict recorded by the highly contentious first inquest. This created a pathway for a new inquest to be launched, commencing on 18 October 2004. Crucially, this time around, ballistics experts detailed how the fatal bullet had entered Harry’s head from the rear, rather than the front, contradicting official police accounts that Harry had assumed a firing position. Much to the short-lived delight of the family, in this second inquest, the jury returned a verdict of unlawful killing.

“I effectively said to them: It’s not my case on behalf of Irene Stanley that you went out to shoot him and that you are trigger-happy coppers,” says Owen, detailing his approach to cross-examining the officers. “However, your account of what happened is a pack of lies. You made up your accounts before the pathologist had produced the post-mortem evidence.”

The unlawful killing ruling led to the suspensions of Fagan and Sharman. Less than a month later, their colleagues revolted (which Owen says is not uncommon when officers face consequences for violent incidents), with more than 100 firearms officers threatening to down their weapons in protest at their suspension. A potentially devastating ‘strike’ by mutinous armed police was aborted when, not long afterward, Fagan and Sharman returned to duty, as though nothing happened. 

The following year, in May 2005, the High Court then decided that there was “insufficient evidence” for the verdict of unlawful killing, reinstating the open verdict of the first inquest. Just a month later, after the police were forced to reopen their investigation in light of the unambiguously damning forensic evidence that had emerged during the second inquest, Fagan and Sharman were arrested by Surrey Police “on suspicion of murder, gross negligence, manslaughter and conspiracy to pervert the course of justice”. In 2000, however, the Crown Prosecution Service would eventually choose not to press charges. 

A full 18 hours after Irene first heard the gunshots, a detective and two constables knocked on the front-door, taking her into the sitting room to inform her of her husband’s violent death. She was appalled at how long the identification and notification process took, particularly since he had lain uncovered on the ground for multiple hours with his British passport and his birth certificate in his pockets. 

As news about Harry’s death filtered outwards towards family and friends, eldest son Jason made his way from Tottenham to Hackney, where his family was beginning to congregate. But they weren’t alone. 

Swarming the house in the aftermath of the killing, police officers poured fuel into an already tense and febrile atmosphere, questioning all friends and family members who stepped foot inside, including those simply wishing to pay their respects. “We don’t need you in the house,” Jason, who was 26 at the time, recalls telling the police. “We don’t want anyone affiliated with coppers in the house.” 

The Surrey Police, who were ordered by the Police Complaints Authority to investigate the shooting, offered to pay for the funeral, only to then refuse and deny that such an olive branch ever existed.

As the hours and days passed, questions from police officers began to become more pointedly offensive and accusatory. The family recounts a singularly bizarre line of questioning: that a suicidal Harry had, in a depressive fugue, purposefully carried a gun-like object to get himself killed, in something resembling a suicide-by-cop. It wasn’t long before this unevidenced theory popped up in the newspapers, ostensibly disseminated by the police. “He’d just recovered from cancer,” Jason says. “If he wanted to die, he wouldn’t have bothered with the operation.”

Outrage in Hackney, whose residents were no strangers to police brutality, came from a simmer to boiling point. For Charlene, the youngest sibling, the most extraordinary memory she retains is of widespread support from the wider community. “That meant everything to us,” she says. 

The Stanley family, amid their mourning, felt compelled to take action. Members of a local socialist grouping talked Charlene into attending a public meeting, but the family agreed that she was too young to speak, so Jason went in her place. A public meeting was arranged just two weeks after Harry’s killing, attended by over 200 concerned locals. 

“They wanted to smash the whole town up,” Jason remembers of the meeting, which marked the birth of the official campaign, ‘Justice for Harry Stanley’. “It just felt like they were shitting on us: it’s just another common person, a nothing. Anyone with a criminal record deserves to fucking die. People read about him and they think, ‘That was just a wrong’un’.”

While at the outset Jason became the main vessel through which the family communicated with the outside world (“I was trying to protect my mum and sisters as much as possible”), a strong-willed, sharp-tongued Irene gradually became the most recognisable face of the official campaign. (It emerged in 2014 that undercover police surveilled and attempted to infiltrate the family-led campaign.) With the support of family, Irene refused to allow Harry’s death to have been in vain.

By her own admission, Irene wasn’t a natural-born orator: circumstances forced her into becoming a vigorous and empathetic campaigner for justice. Seen in a heroic light by her children, she often counselled and lent support to the families of other victims, available at any hour of day. 

“I wasn’t into politics, I wasn’t a campaigner – I was just normal,” says Irene. “And now, all of a sudden, I’m out there fighting for justice with the rest of my family because it shouldn’t have happened, and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.”

Yet all of the campaigning in the world cannot salve the emotional, mental and physical damage that such killings wreak on families. “[The shooting] devastated everyone,” says Jason. “I mean, he was the focal point of the family. It broke the whole family.”

A year after Harry’s death, his brother Peter fell ill and “just gave up on life”. Harry’s mother, the family say, died within a few years of heartbreak. Jason, unable to deal with the unprocessed anger that the killing brought about, began seeing a psychiatrist. 

Inevitably, when the time feels right, this cataclysmic event must be relayed to grandchildren and great grandchildren, many of whom Harry never had the chance to meet. “We have to explain to them that Harry was killed for no reason,” says Charlene, “that there are untrue things on the internet about him, and that the police officers who did this are just getting on with their lives.”

As all family members go to lengths to stress, they are desperate not for retributive justice but an official apology. “If they could just put their hands up and admit that they made the biggest mistake in their lives – we’re not asking for you to do 25 years,” explains Jason. “What they need to be doing is saying, ‘How can we help this family heal?’”

On 1 August this year, after 20 years in an urn in a display cabinet in the living room of the family home, Harry’s ashes were, faithful to his last wishes as a proud Scottish protestant, finally scattered into the green fields of Culloden in Inverness, the site of the The Battle of Culloden, which was the final prologue in the Jacobite Rising of 1745. 

For the Stanley family, the scars have never healed. For many years, the blares of police sirens would send shivers of repulsion up Charlene’s spine. “I don’t have faith in the police anymore,” she laments. In Jason’s case, the burning rage has never fully extinguished. “ I just live and do everything I’m supposed to as a father and a grandfather. People say, ‘That’s 20 years ago’, but something happens every day that reminds you of it. It never leaves you.”

Say Their Names is a series uncovering the stories behind the staggering number of deaths in police custody or following contact with the police. Read the series introduction here

Follow Colin Gannon on Twitter.

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