Young army recruit Private Sean Benton, who was found dead at Deepcut barracks in 1995, died from self-inflicted gun wounds, an inquest ruled.
Judge Peter Rook QC delivered a narrative verdict, on Wednesday, severely criticising ‘serious failures in the duty of care’ at the Surrey camp where the young soldier’s body was found 23 years ago with five bullet wounds to the chest.
Recording his verdict of suicide, Judge Rook QC said Pte Benton, from Hastings, died of blood loss caused by self-inflicted gunfire and said there was no third-party involvement in his death.
Judge Rook QC said Pte Benton had persuaded a fellow trainee to hand him a gun after being told he was to be discharged from the Army.
The wide-ranging inquest into his death, which was held at Woking Coroner’s Court, began in January and heard evidence from 174 witnesses about Pte Benton and life at Deepcut barracks.
Many witnesses made serious allegations of bullying, abuse and mismanagement at Deepcut – where, according to evidence heard, in 1995 there could be just one non-commissioned officer in charge of up to 300 young recruits.
The inquest previously heard evidence that Pte Benton suffered from mental health problems, and was physically and verbally attacked and ‘humiliated’ by his fellow trainee soldiers and superiors.
Witnesses described a ‘culture of abuse’ at Deepcut, while former staff said they felt unprepared to take charge of hundreds of trainee soldiers at the barracks.
Pte Benton, 20, was found with five bullet wounds to his chest on June 9, 1995, shortly after he had been told he was to be discharged from the Army. He was the first of four young soldiers to die of gunshot wounds at Deepcut between 1995 and 2002. The other three were Cheryl James, Geoff Gray and James Collinson.
Liberty – which represents Pte Benton’s family – warned serious crimes including rape, sexual assault and grievous bodily harm can still be investigated by the Army’s internal police force, the military police, instead of a civilian force.
In a statement, Liberty said: “Many assaults including those suffered by (Pte Benton) can still be investigated by a soldier’s own commanding officer and not referred to any kind of police at all.
“The military police lack the resources and experience to competently and independently investigate the most serious crimes – as demonstrated by the collapse of a recent criminal trial involving allegations that training instructors at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate had committed serious assaults on junior recruits and the very strong critical remarks of the Judge Advocate.”
After the verdict, Pte Benton’s family said vulnerable young soldiers today could still go through the same experiences Pte Benton did 23 years ago.
Pte Benton’s death was initially followed by a brief investigation by the military’s internal police force, which was described as ‘rushed and grossly inadequate’ by his family who went on to spend more than 20 years fighting for the inquest they said their son deserved.
Pte Benton’s sister Tracy Lewis and his twin brother Tony Benton, who are represented by Liberty, applied for a second inquest in July 2015 which was granted in October 2016.
The application was made possible after Pte Benton’s late mother Linda Benton used the Human Rights Act to finally access vast amounts of evidence held by Surrey Police about his death. Linda died in May 2015, having never discovered the truth about what happened to her son.
After the inquest, Pte Sean Benton’s older sister Tracy Lewis said: “In the last few months of his life, Sean had nowhere to go. If there had been a good, independent complaints system, or if he had known he could have reported the assaults he suffered to the police, he might have got the help he needed. But at Deepcut, the people who were causing him terrible problems were the same people he would have had to ask for help. So he was stuck.
“The Army will say things are different today. I don’t believe enough has changed.
“If Sean – or a vulnerable young man like him – joined the Army today, I worry that he could go through the same thing. I fear that another family today might have to endure what mine has for 23 years. Our soldiers are still subject to an inferior, second-class justice system – less fair, less thorough and less independent than the civilian one.”
Pte Benton’s death was immediately investigated by the Army’s own police force, the Royal Military Police, rather than by civilian police – something Surrey Police acknowledged as a ‘failure’ during the fresh inquest and apologised for it.
Pte Benton’s family said the initial inquest into his death – which took place a month after he died – lasted less than two hours and heard evidence from just six people.
His medical and mental health records were reportedly not obtained and no evidence was sought or given about his experiences at Deepcut before the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide.
In 2002 and 2003, a criminal investigation carried out by Surrey Police concluded there was no evidence of third-party involvement but the family said it was not given access to the evidence uncovered by police.
In 2012, Liberty – acting on behalf of Pte Benton’s mother Linda – used the Human Rights Act to insist Surrey Police give her access to all evidence held by the force about her son and his death so they could apply for a fresh inquest. Surrey Police agreed to disclose all relevant materials – a process that finished in 2015.
Emma Norton, head of Legal Casework at Liberty and solicitor for the Benton family, said: “Private Sean Benton was routinely attacked and humiliated at Deepcut barracks. He had nowhere to turn for help, and his mental health fell apart.
“Myth-busting recruitment campaigns might claim things are different now – but we still see soldiers failed by a closed-ranks military culture that resents outside oversight.
“When soldiers are assaulted or face sexual violence at work, the Army must guarantee civilian police will investigate those crimes. The men and women who fight for our country deserve equal justice.”
Liberty also represents the family of Cheryl James, who died at Deepcut on November 27, 1995. A fresh inquest into her death was held in 2016.
Liberty also acts for the family of Private James Collinson.