An inquest is taking place in Belfast into the death of an American citizen living in Ireland to determine if he died from complications related to a beating he received from an RUC riot squad six months before his death.
New Jersey-born John Hemsworth died six months after he was badly assaulted by members of the RUC in West Belfast on July 7, 1997. There was rioting in the Springfield Road area of Belfast following one of the most contentious Drumcree marching disputes that same day.
Hemsworth, 39, a husband and father, was on his way home from a bar when he encountered rioting between Catholics and the RUC.
Hemsworth’s sister, Patricia Hemsworth O’Neill, told the Irish Voice, that her brother was an innocent passerby.
“John had gone through a side street hoping to avoid the rioting. But rioters ran past him with the police in pursuit. The police couldn’t catch up with the rioters, so they came back to my brother and told him to raise his hands and they beat him up,” Hemsworth O’Neill said, recalling her brother’s description of the night’s events.
Hemsworth, a plumber, was admitted to hospital with a broken jaw. Several months later he complained of severe headaches. He was taken to hospital on December 27 and died on New Year’s Day, 1998 after suffering a stroke.
Hemsworth’s parents, who lived in New Jersey for a number of years and had John there before returning to Belfast when he was two, are claiming their son died from the beatings he received at the hands of the police that day in July. Hemsworth began to suffer from depression after the attack.
“He was very psychologically upset from it. He even planned to return to the U.S. and get away from it all,” said Hemsworth O’Neill, adding that John worked in the U.S. for about six years during the 1980s.
Hemsworth O’Neill, who lives and works in Los Angeles, said her family is “frustrated” that it took nearly 12 years to get an inquest into her brother’s death.
“We just want someone to take responsibility,” said Hemsworth O’Neill.
She was in Ireland for the first four days of the inquest.
“It’s been horrible for my parents,” said Hemsworth O’Neill. “By the Wednesday my mother, who is 79 next month, had to go to hospital because her heart rate had elevated so much we were worried.
“And my dad who is 76 had a heart attack earlier this year. I am just very concerned about their health. This inquest and the past 12 years have been just awful for them. My mother will never be the same,” she added.
It was Hemsworth himself who started the process of making the RUC accountable for its actions.
“Just after the assault John went to a lawyer. He had an option to sue the police or the Northern Ireland Security Office. He was given the advice to sue the office because he would win, but John said it wasn’t about winning, it was about holding the police responsible for assaulting an innocent person,” said his sister.
Hemsworth O’Neill said it is “very emotional” for John’s wife, Colette, and parents to sit in the court and relive the whole experience again during the inquest.
“They just want a conclusion and it to be over with,” she said. “It’s so nerve wrecking, but John started the case so we want to see it finished.”
A witness to the attack, Anthony Carnaghan, in a statement to a solicitor, said that he witnessed police attacking Hemsworth and heard the young man shouting, “I’ve nothing to do with it (rioting).”
“Police hit him and he fell against the garden gate. The man was crawling into the garden and police were still beating at him,” he added.
Hemsworth O’Neill, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past 19 years, said her brother told his family after the attack that he told the police he was an American citizen, but that it only made them beat him more furiously.
Professor Derek Pounder, an expert in forensic medicine at the University of Dundee, took to the stand last week. He told the inquest jury that there was “no real doubt” that an injury just below the right jaw, inflicted by a baton or stick, led to Hemsworth suffering a stroke and ultimately dying. Pounder said the blow had injured an artery leading to a blood clot and subsequently a fatal stroke.
His conclusion was, “Given all the factors, it is in my view highly likely that the trauma was the sole direct underlying cause of death.”
Several police officers have taken the stand that were on duty the night of the rioting. However, they all deny being anywhere near the street where Hemsworth was when he was attacked.
When asked by the defense why his son didn’t mention to the hospital that he was beaten up by the RUC, Michael Hemsworth said, “May I say it was the experience of a lot of people in those days that you didn’t report an assault by police when you went into hospital because it meant you would be arrested for riotous behavior.”
Hemsworth’s father said his son was not lucid while in hospital. “He kept repeating, ‘Dad, I didn’t do anything.’ I always brought up my children to be well-behaved and to walk away from trouble,” the father said.
Hemsworth O’Neill, her brother Paul and her parents are hoping it will be publicly acknowledged that someone is responsible for John’s death.
Depending on the ruling, Hemsworth’s wife may file a civil suit against the police.
Hemsworth’s parents have written countless letters since their son’s death to members of Congress in an effort to have the U.S. investigate their son’s death. They have never received a response.
“I’m shocked how Congress will involve themselves in Northern Ireland matters but when one of their own, an American citizen, needs their help they are nowhere to be seen,” said Hemsworth O’Neill angrily.