The death of a prisoner eight months after he was jailed for a frenzied attack on his partner was due to natural causes, an inquest jury decided.
James Edward O’Neill, 46, died from cancer in the Royal Preston Hospital just weeks after the disease was diagnosed at the city’s prison.
The inmate, who had been serving a sentence of 12 years and eight months for bludgeoning his girlfriend with a beer bottle, developed an aggressive tumour in the oesophagus which spread to his lungs, liver and bowel.
But Coroner Dr James Adeley told the jury after a two-day hearing that, while there were a number of unanswered questions about when the disease was first picked up by prison medical staff, they had only two choices – natural causes or an open verdict.
And he told O’Neill’s family: “I appreciate in your view an earlier diagnosis could have resulted in surgery, however there is so much uncertainty about when that time occurred and when Mr O’Neill would have presented symptoms.”
The former refuse collector was jailed in February 2013 for a vicious assault on his 51-year-old partner Hazel Peters at the home they shared in West End Road, Morecambe. It was said in court he knocked Ms Peters to the floor with a bottle and then struck her around 20 times as she lay defenceless on the floor. As he attacked her he told his victim several times he was going to kill her. O’Neill then stripped off his clothes and made his escape on a bus wearing only his underpants.
I appreciate in your view an earlier diagnosis could have resulted in surgery, however there is so much uncertainty about when that time occurred and when Mr O’Neill would have presented symptoms.Dr James Adeley
The hearing was told that the prisoner, who was a smoker, had alcohol and drug problems and suffered from depression, had tried to cut his own throat in prison with broken glass and a razor blade. Medical witnesses said O’Neill first complained in January 2013 about a lingering cough, which eventually resulted in him coughing up blood. He had failed to return sample jars given to him and it was some time later that he was eventually diagnosed with cancer.
Dr Adeley told the jury: “For legal reasons the choices you can consider are very limited. You may wonder why you have given your time. The reason is firstly the Government takes a view all deaths in custody should be heard before a jury to dispel rumour.
“You’ve heard significant argument over various aspects of evidence. There has been significant amounts of evidence in this case referring to possible events. The difficulty with this case is there are unresolvable problems with the evidence in court. Whilst certain facts are known - it was known to be some months to a year before July 2013 when the cancer developed - other information is missing, things like where it began, when did it spread, when did it become unamenable to surgery, what would have happened if he had have been referred to the chest clinic, whether or not James O’Neill would have accepted chemotherapy, whether he could have tolerated it.
“ All these issues have been raised, but the evidence is unknown and because they are unknown it is not a matter I can leave to you, because it would cause you to speculate.”