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Exclusive: Missing evidence delays already overdue report into Aberdeen man’s police custody death

Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle blamed "unavailable" Crown productions for failing to meet another deadline to reveal the conclusions of a probe into Warren Fenty's Kittybrewster cell death in June 2014.

Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle is in charge of the Fatal Accident Inquiry into Warren Fenty's death in Police Scotland's custody suite at Kittybrewster, Aberdeen. Images: DC Thomson/Family handout
Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle is in charge of the Fatal Accident Inquiry into Warren Fenty's death in Police Scotland's custody suite at Kittybrewster, Aberdeen. Images: DC Thomson/Family handout

Missing evidence has further delayed an inquiry into the death of an Aberdeen man in police custody, exceeding a fifth deadline to publish the long-overdue findings.

Grampian’s most senior legal figure Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle, whose salary is more than £170,000, had “promised” to publish his determination into Warren Fenty’s demise by tomorrow.

But the release of his yet-to-be-completed report has been postponed over a technical issue and the sheriff principal travelling abroad for three weeks next month.

The tragic 20-year-old’s mother Sharon has been waiting nearly a decade for answers to her late son’s drug overdose death in a cell at Police Scotland’s Kittybrewster station.

But an update that was emailed to Miss Fenty, 54, last Friday delivered another devastating blow for the grieving mum whose patience has been tested to its limit.

“I’ve had enough,” she told The Press and Journal, adding: “Just like last time, I’ve been let down only days before the latest deadline to be missed.

‘I got the feeling that Derek Pyle is going on holiday, but he should get the job done instead’

“When I read the email, I got the feeling that Derek Pyle is going on holiday, but he should get the job done instead.

“You wouldn’t think he’d go on holiday until all of this is cleared up. He took this responsibility on and made promises to me, so he shouldn’t be going abroad until he’s finished what he promised to do.

“If you get appointed to a high-paid job like his, you should be doing the job properly.”

It’s unclear how long it took for Sheriff Principal Pyle to become aware of the latest issues, how quickly he acted to resolve them, and why they only came to light last Friday.

The Judicial Office for Scotland, which declined to answer any of The P&J’s questions, also refused to comment on whether the sheriff principal’s upcoming travel plans are work-related or for pleasure.

Sharon Fenty. Image: Family handout

A spokesperson for the Judicial Office for Scotland told this newspaper: “The sheriff principal promised to keep parties up to date on how the FAI determination is progressing.

“He has written to all interested parties to make them aware of small delays to progress however, Sheriff Principal Pyle remains committed to publishing the determination as soon as practically possible.”

In the email update, a clerk acting on behalf of the sheriff principal blamed the latest setback on “important” evidence – including “expert reports” – being “unavailable” and a “technical problem” with opening copies of the documents since received on a memory stick.

She warned that “three weeks of writing time will have been lost” and added: “The sheriff principal is to be abroad for the first three weeks of April and will therefore be able to return to this only during the last week of that month.

“The consequence is that he does not anticipate the determination being issued until the end of the second week in May,” the clerk added.

Fifth delay after previous sheriff was removed following four missed deadlines

Sheriff Principal Pyle took over the extremely delayed Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI) towards the middle of January when he removed Sheriff Morag McLaughlin from the FAI in response to what he called her “personal medical matter”.

She had previously missed four deadlines to publish her final report summarising evidence that was last heard by Aberdeen Sheriff Court more than two years ago.

In a private meeting with Miss Fenty at the end of January and during an emergency hearing a month later, the sheriff principal said he planned to complete the inquiry during “a four-week period”.

He told the court on Tuesday February 27: “My intention would be to start reading the evidence on Monday next week.

“I’ve got some court appearances during that week and the following week, but apart from that, I will be doing nothing else – other than dealing with this determination for probably two or three weeks.”

Warren Fenty, left, and Sheriff Morag McLaughlin, right. Images: DC Thomson/Family handout

However, his sheriff clerk said in the latest update emailed last Friday to lawyers involved in the FAI that: “The sheriff principal was able to spend a few days on the draft only then to discover the problems with the Crown productions, which included some important productions, not least the expert reports, being unavailable”.

She explained: “The Crown has now produced a pen drive which the sheriff principal received earlier this week.

“There is however a technical problem about opening the files, which he will seek to resolve next week with the Scottish Courts IT department.”

The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), which is responsible for the investigation of all sudden, suspicious, accidental and unexplained deaths, confirmed that it is not responsible for any evidence – also known as Crown productions, becoming “unavailable”.

Heavy criticism of various authorities is looming on the horizon

Its spokesman explained: “COPFS initiated FAI proceedings in 2020 at the conclusion of our investigation.

“All Crown productions were lodged and fully considered in the original hearing.

“At the request of the sheriff principal the Crown recently provided the Court a further copy of all the productions.

“The Procurator Fiscal will continue to provide support and assistance to the Fatal Accident Inquiry as required.”

When the determination is finally published, the sheriff principal is expected to be highly critical of the COPFS for its role in delaying the FAI, which has become Scotland’s longest-ever ongoing case of its kind.

The Crown Office only referred Warren Fenty’s case to the Scottish Courts and Tribunals Service (SCTS) in March 2020, almost six years after he lost his life.

A timeline, which was previously submitted by COPFS officials to Sheriff Morag McLaughlin, revealed a three-year period of inactivity.

‘I accept my responsibility for my failure not to notice that there were problems’

During the latest proceedings, fiscal depute Muhammad Sadiq declined to provide an explanation when Sheriff Principal Pyle invited him to explain the gap.

But the sheriff principal admitted during the same hearing that he had personally become aware of severe delays to the FAI’s progress in March last year.

“I only became aware of the problem in this case in March last year and that is a failing by me,” he told the court.

The sheriff principal then explained that the system he inherited to monitor his sheriffdom’s performance did not include FAIs on the list of ongoing cases.

“An avizandum list for all my sheriffs, which is checked regularly, only relates to civil procedure and has never included Fatal Accident Inquiries.

“I accept my responsibility for my failure not to notice that there were problems prior to March last year.

“I was actively involved from March last year,” he revealed.

Kittybrewster Police Office.
Kittybrewster police station in Aberdeen. Image: DC Thomson

Warren Fenty was discovered unresponsive in cell 28 at Police Scotland’s Kittybrewster custody centre in Aberdeen at 7.04am on June 29 2014.

He was later declared dead by paramedics at 7.25am.

Warren had died in his sleep from methadone intoxication just hours after being locked up, following treatment for a drug overdose in the high-dependency unit at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary (ARI).

The day before, he had prematurely discharged himself from ARI – against doctors’ advice – and then police officers detained him in connection with potential drug offences.

The custody suite at Kittybrewster police station. Image: DC Thomson

Warren had already received the intravenous drug Naloxone to counteract the effects of an overdose and, at the time of his detention, the young man was on suicide watch.

But it emerged during evidence previously given to his FAI that, although police officers were required to visit the “high-risk” prisoner’s cell every 30 minutes, three checks weren’t made over a one hour and 45 minute period.

Aberdeen Sheriff Court was also told that other checks were “not of a satisfactory standard” – according to Inspector Mark Flemming, a senior police officer who later reviewed the events leading up to the detainee’s passing.

Warren Fenty was found unresponsive in his cell at Kittybrewster custody centre. Image: Kenny Elrick/DC Thomson
Warren Fenty was found unresponsive in his cell at Kittybrewster custody centre. Image: DC Thomson

Insp Flemming also claimed there had been a “communication breakdown” between NHS Grampian and Police Scotland during his handover between the two agencies.

And the inspector spoke of a “significant gap” in information shared between those who came into contact with the deceased.

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