- Christopher Kapessa, 13, died in River Cynon near Fernhill in Rhondda Cynon Taf
The mother of a 13-year-old boy who tragically drowned after being pushed into a river in a ‘prank’ said today she believed he was ‘unlawfully killed’ as her solicitor demanded prosecutors reopen the case.
Christopher Kapessa died in the River Cynon near Fernhill in Rhondda Cynon Taf, South Wales in July 2019.
Four witnesses told the inquest in Pontypridd that Jayden Pugh, then 14, had pushed Christopher from a ledge into the water after saying words to the effect of ‘shall I push him in’.
Football-loving Christopher – who was not a confident swimmer – slipped below the surface before ‘panicked’ teenagers tried in vain to save him from the murky water.
At an inquest today, a coroner lifted reporting restrictions enabling Mr Pugh – now aged 19 – to be named for the first time.
He told the court that he fell into the 13-year-old as they gathered on the slippery ledge and did not deliberately push him.
Today, however, Assistant Coroner David Regan ruled at South Wales Coroners’ Court that Mr Pugh ‘deliberately’ pushed Christopher in what he said had been ‘a misplaced sense of fun, namely as a prank’.
Delivering a narrative conclusion, he stressed that there had been no ‘malicious intent’ and said there was ‘no evidence of animosity’ between Christopher and the other children.
Christopher’s mother, Alina Joseph, has long campaigned for a manslaughter prosecution over Christopher’s death, unsuccessfully taking her case to the High Court.
She has accused the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and South Wales Police of institutional racism, claiming the decision would have be different if her son was white.
Paying tribute to Christopher after today’s hearing, Ms Joseph said she and her family continued to be ‘denied justice’.
‘The coroner’s conclusion has confirmed what I have always suspected and I now know was actually clear right from the beginning: that my son was pushed to his death without any warning,’ she said.
‘That Christopher was unlawfully killed and he should be with us today.’
She accused police and prosecutors of having ‘a biased view of me as a black single mother living in the Valleys’.
‘I was a victim of the institutional racist practices of South Wales Police,’ she added.
‘I deserve better.’
Her solicitor, Daniel Cooper, said the coroner’s findings were ‘a vindication of the family’s campaign for justice’.
‘Although the coroner’s conclusion is of course not binding on the CPS, we believe they now have an obligation to review their decision,’ he said.
Mr Cooper said the justification for launching a prosecution had become ‘more compelling’, citing the fact that the suspect and many of the witnesses were now adults and therefore better able to participate in a trial.
‘The hard and tragic truth, as determined by the coroner, is of a young man, at the start of his life, who was forced into the water, against his will,’ he said.
‘Based on this outcome and the evidence compiled, we invite the CPS to reconsider their decision to prosecute.’
However both the CPS and South Wales Police reiterated their position following the coroner’s comments.
Jenny Hopkins, chief crown prosecutor for CPS Cymru/Wales, said: ‘Christopher’s death was an unimaginable tragedy and our thoughts remain with his family.
‘Each case is different and the CPS’s role is to make an independent assessment on whether to bring a prosecution, not to determine the innocence or guilt of a suspect.
‘We have always made clear the reasons why our test was not met to charge anyone in connection with this heartbreaking case.
‘Our decision that a prosecution was not in the public interest was considered and upheld as lawful by the Administrative Court in 2022.’
Assistant Chief Constable Danny Richards of South Wales Police said: ‘We hope that this independent scrutiny and the outcome of the inquest proceedings will give us a greater understanding of the issues which have been raised about this case.’
He added: ‘Our thoughts remain with his family and friends who have had to re-live the terrible tragedy through the recent inquest proceedings.’
The force has made a referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct examining its initial response and investigation into the circumstances surrounding Christopher’s death.
In a statement, the IOPC said it found ‘some shortcomings’ in the way South Wales Police dealt with Christopher’s family and said communications by officers with them could have been better.
It said it did not uphold a complaint by Christopher’s family that officers concluded he had died as a result of an accident without proper investigation.
The IOPC also said evidence did not suggest Christopher’s family were treated less favourably by police because of their race.
One complaint was upheld, relating to a meeting between Christopher’s family and South Wales Police in which one police officer was ‘ill-judged and insensitive’.
The IOPC said there was no disciplinary case to answer but recommended management action for the officer involved, with additional training on dealing with bereaved families, equality and diversity, and unconscious bias.
David Ford, director of the IOPC, said: ‘While it is clear that aspects of communication with Christopher’s family could and should have been handled better by South Wales Police, we found no evidence to justify bringing any disciplinary proceedings against individual officers.
‘We shared with the force areas for potential learning and improvements, which centred on communicating appropriately with bereaved families. Clearer communications from the outset may have provided greater clarity for Christopher’s family at a time when they needed it most.
‘In addition, we recommended a review of force policies and guidance concerning sudden death investigations. South Wales Police accepted and implemented our recommendations.’
After South Wales Police passed it a file of evidence, in July 2020, the CPS announced that it was not in the public interest to prosecute the boy accused of pushing Christopher in what it said was a ‘foolish prank’.
It said there was no ‘public interest’ to bring a manslaughter case, despite ‘evidence to support a prosecution’.
The family considered launching a private prosecution against Mr Pugh.
They won the right to a judicial review of the decision not to prosecute him.
However, following a hearing in January 2022, judges at the High Court dismissed the application.
Christopher was described as ‘loving, caring, passionate and very protective’ by his family.
Assistant Coroner David Regan ruled at South Wales Coroners’ Court: ‘The push was a dangerous prank, however the child responsible for it did not intend to cause Christopher’s death and himself jumped into the water with other children in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue.’
Delivering his conclusions in the case Mr Regan said: ‘In my judgement, Christopher was deliberately pushed into the back from behind by (the boy) using his hands.
‘(The boy’s) actions deprived Christopher of the opportunity to decide whether or not to enter the water. I have no hesitation in finding that Christopher did not consent to being pushed into the river.’
Christopher, who was not a confident swimmer according to his mother, began panicking and shouted for help, the inquest heard.
Other children, including the boy alleged to have pushed him into the river, jumped in and tried to rescue him but Christopher disappeared below the surface at about 5.30pm.
The coroner said: ‘They acted very courageously in doing so.
Mr Regan described how Christopher fell 2.5 metres from the ledge into the river, into water that was 2.5 metres deep and had not been able to prepare for his entry.
Christopher’s head became submerged, he is likely to have suffered from cold water shock which would have led to the involuntary ingestion of water, the coroner said.
Emergency services attended and Christopher was recovered from the water at 7.25pm. He was later declared dead at the Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil.
During the four and a half years following his tragic death, Christopher’s family have called for the teenager to be charged.
Speaking outside of court, Ms Joseph said her son was ‘always thoughtful, sensitive, full of hope’.
She continued: ‘I cherish the memories of my son who was an incredible young boy. Christopher will always be remembered for bringing immense joy and happiness to me and to everyone who he met.
‘Christopher would have celebrated his 18th birthday in January of this year. It was difficult watching other children do normal things that Christopher wanted to do.
‘I wonder every day what he would look like now – the only image I’ve got of him at the age of 13 – and what he would have been doing. I know he would have been fulfilling his dreams and aspirations.
‘He would still be cheeky and making us all laugh.’
She went on to criticise South Wales Police – who say they have referred themselves to the Independent Office for Police Conduct.
She said: ‘From the onset, they had already made their decisions about what had happened to Christopher. They had a biased view of me as a black single mother living in the Valleys.
‘The police did not investigate the pattern of racism suffered by Christopher and the family. It was only after I raised concerns that they began to investigate properly.
‘I was a victim of the institutional racist practices of South Wales Police. I deserve better. I’m afraid that because of the way they treated our family, I do not trust the police.
‘I have not been able to grieve for Christopher. I’ve been forbidden from grieving for Christopher, or mourning his passing. The decisions not to prosecute despite evidence is something I wouldn’t wish upon any mother or any family.
‘Christopher was pushed. My son and our son was pushed without any warning and that Christopher was unlawfully killed and should be with us today.’
Assistant Chief Constable Danny Richards of South Wales Police said:’ The tragic death of Christopher Kapessa deeply shocked and affected many people in the local community.
‘Our thoughts remain with his family and friends who have had to re-live the terrible tragedy through the recent inquest proceedings.
‘South Wales Police made a referral to the Independent Office for Police Conduct who have examined our initial response and investigation into the circumstances surrounding Christopher’s death.
‘We hope that this independent scrutiny and the outcome of the inquest proceedings will give us a greater understanding of the issues which have been raised about this case.’
The Crown Prosecution Service said in 2020: ‘Although there was evidence to support a prosecution for manslaughter it was not in the public interest to prosecute.
‘Christopher’s tragic death occurred after a group of children went out to have fun by the river. The evidence showed that Christopher was pushed into the river as a foolish prank with nothing to suggest that the suspect intended to harm him, although that was the awful consequence.’
But his family and Black Lives Matter campaigners alleged that the decision not to prosecute was racism.
The family challenged the review but it was upheld by the High Court in 2022 and the coroner’s investigation was then continued.
His mother previously told the inquest that their family had been victims in a string of racist attacks in the years prior.
She also told the hearing she was taken to hospital after being told Christopher was involved in an accident but was not told he had died.
She said: ‘Nobody told me Christopher had died until I worked it out for myself.’
‘There are no words to explain how I felt, no words to describe how this has left our family.’
In a statement to the inquest, she described Christopher – who loved playing football and computer games – as ‘my treasure’ who gave her ‘strength in life’.
She said: ‘Life will never be the same after Christopher’s death. I will continue to fight for justice for him.’
She told the hearing Christopher had: ‘A loving upbringing with love, discipline, protection, education, listening and understanding.’