A unanimous verdict of suicide has been recorded against the death of a convicted murderer who hung himself in his prison cell.
The Coroners Court Inquest jury of six men and four women deliberated for 45 minutes at Ballymena Courthouse before returning with their verdict “beyond reasonable doubt” that Christopher Stokes had intentionally taken his own life on 25 June 2012 - his 37th birthday.
They also recorded a verdict, on the balance of probabilities, there were “deficits in the prison practice and procedures in force at the time which caused or contributed to the death.”
They heard how day staff told night staff to “keep an eye” on Stokes after he became emotional as a result of a “bad phone call” with his wife but that hung himself using a lace attached to a nail on the wall.
The foreman told the court the jury found that “there should have been picture hooks instead of nails, a better hand over procedure” and that in circumstances where they heard evidence of previous episodes of self harm, including an overdose in 2011, that “should have been made aware to staff.”
They also heard evidence that a senior officer considered opening a SPAR or supporting prisoners at risk booklet, which would have resulted in more enhanced monitoring but chose not to, ruling that prison staff should not be making that decision but instead by “an on site councillor.”
During the two day hearing the jury heard that Stokes was upset as a result of a “bad phone call” with his wife Mary, also known as Winnie, who later called the jail to report that her husband had “threatened to cut himself.”
They also heard that day staff as well as his friend and fellow prisoner Kristoff Aluya had spoken to Stokes as a result of concerns which had been raised with the prison officers testifying that Stokes assured them he was not contemplating self harming himself or suicide.
Senior PO Pamela McKeown said said had considered opening a SPAR booklet, which would have changed the way he was monitored but that Stokes himself had begged her not to, adding that he had made some plans for the future including planning a family visit in a private room which was “make or break for his marriage” and getting extra phone credit to call home.
Aluya had been listed as a witness to give evidence via videolink from the prison but the jury heard that “regrettably” he had refused to co-operate.
Edward Stokes, Christopher’s brother, had also been scheduled to give evidence to the Inquest but like Aluya, he had refused to co-operate.
Instead, Prisoner Ombudsman investigator Ms Ruth O’Duinnin gave evidence that she had twice spoken to Aluya when she was enquiring about the death, telling the court how a tearful and emotional Aluya described his relationship with Stokes as “extremely close, like brothers.”
He told the investigator he had offered to “double up” with his friend, meaning he would spend the night in Stokes’ cell but that Stokes “laughed it off” and declined, describing himself as “100%.”
Although the jury heard the Stokes brothers had been jailed together, they did not not know their crimes.
Similarly, they did not know what Aluya was convicted of.
Now that the jury are no longer involved in the case, the shocking murders they committed which horrified the public, can be revealed.
In March 2010 a judge handed life sentences to Edward and Christopher Stokes with minimum tariffs of 22 and 20 years respectively after they were convicted of hacking father-of-three fellow traveller John Mongan to death with an axe and a sword, in front of his heavily pregnant wife and daughter.
Having driven from their homes in Derry in February 2008, the Stokes brothers smashed their way into the Mongan’s home at Fallswater Street in west Belfast and shoving his wife Julia, who was due to give birth the very next day, inflicted at least 40 wounds before fleeing the gruesome and bloody scene.
Mrs Mongan, a cousin of her husbands killers, identified them to police.