HH Peter Rook QC has today handed down his findings of fact and conclusions in respect of the inquest into the death of Private Sean Benton, a trainee soldier, at Deepcut Army Barracks on 9 June 1995.
He has concluded that Sean died as a result of suicide when he shot himself with a SA80 rifle causing five wounds to the chest. He has found that no third party fired any shots during the incident that led to Sean’s death.
The initial inquest into Sean’s death held a month after his death lasted less than a day and also came to a verdict of suicide. However that inquest was overturned by the High Court in October 2016 when a fresh inquest was ordered.
The second inquest, commenced in February 2018 and was held to, in part, satisfy the state’s obligations under Art 2 ECHR to proactively investigate certain deaths.
Having heard evidence from 172 witnesses over 40 days of court sittings HH Peter Rook QC has provided narrative describing the circumstances in which Sean came by his death.
Having considered psychiatric expert evidence the judge has concluded that Sean Benton had an undiagnosed evolving Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder which meant that he would have had great difficulty coping with significant disappointments and stressful life events. On 8 June 1995 Sean had learnt that an application was being made for his discharge from the army, and, profoundly affected by this decision, Sean decided to take his own life.
During the course of the evening of 8/9 June 1995, Sean formed a plan to obtain a weapon and wrote final letters to his parents and others which made it clear that his intention was to kill himself.
Members of the army chain of command were aware that Sean would be very disappointed by the decision to apply for his discharge and that he had a recent history of self-harm. Although Sean was on duty as a reserve guard, it was determined that Sean should not have access to a weapon that evening. Standing orders did not, however, explicitly forbid trainees on guard duty from passing their weapon to a fellow guard, and the other trainees on guard duty that evening were not given the instruction that Sean should not be allowed to have access to a weapon.
Having failed to persuade two fellow trainees to allow him to take over their armed guard duties, Sean tricked another trainee into handing over her SA80 rifle and ammunition to him.
HH Peter Rook QC has concluded that had adequate instructions been given to the trainees on guard duty Sean’s trick is unlikely to have succeeded, and he would not have obtained the weapon and shot himself when he did.
Circumstances of the death
In considering the circumstances of Sean’s death Judge Rook has been critical of welfare systems at Deepcut in 1995 and found that in the face of clear evidence of deterioration in Sean’s physical and mental condition during the weeks before his death there was a failure by the army properly to provide appropriate welfare supervision and support to Sean. Although whilst it is possible that Sean would not have killed himself had he been offered and accepted welfare support the evidence does not establish that this would probably have been the case.
The narrative goes on to state that Sean, who often fell below expectations regarding his kit and turnout and attitude, would frequently be picked up and sanctioned by NCOs at Princess Royal Barracks. In addition, Sean was the subject of verbal abuse and physical violence by an NCO on a number of occasions and was attacked on at least one occasion by his fellow trainees. It is likely that these events eroded Sean’s resilience and compromised his tolerance of stress. They may well have had a particularly adverse effect upon Sean because of his emerging personality disorder.
Whilst it is possible that these events, on their own or combined with inadequate welfare supervision and support, contributed to Sean’s decision to take his own life, it cannot be established that they probably did so.
A number of shortcomings in the policies, systems and procedures in place at Deepcut barracks in 1995 have been admitted by the army. These are also set out in the Record of Inquest but HH Peter Rook QC has not found them to have been causative of the death.
Bridget Dolan QC and Jamie Mathieson have been assisting HH Peter Rook QC as Counsel to the Inquest. John Beggs QC and Cecily White represented Surrey Police, instructed by Hannah Walsh of Weightmans, and Paul Spencer was instructed by Judith Duffin of Clyde & Co on behalf of the Camp GP.