The mother of a 13-year-old boy who drowned after being deliberately pushed into a river by another teenager during a prank, has criticised the police for “institutional racism” and accused them of failing her son.
Christopher Kapessa died after being pushed off a ledge by then 14-year-old Jayden Pugh, into the River Cynon in Fernhill, near Mountain Ash, South Wales, in July 2019.
Mr Pugh, now 19, and other school friends jumped into the water to try to rescue Christopher, but were unable to save him.
The teenager’s body was recovered by the emergency services nearly two hours after he had entered the water.
I was a victim of the institutional racist practices of South Wales Police. I deserve better
Alina Joseph, Christopher Kapessa's mother
Prosecutors decided it was not in the public interest to pursue Mr Pugh, a decision later upheld by the High Court after a legal challenge by the Kapessa family.
After a two-week inquest, South Wales Central assistant coroner David Regan recorded a narrative conclusion and said Christopher drowned after being pushed into the river by Mr Pugh during a “dangerous prank”.
The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) found “some shortcomings” in the way police communicated with Christopher’s family.
Speaking afterwards, his mother, Alina Joseph, criticised decisions made by South Wales Police and said she did not trust the force because of the way her family had been treated.
“They had a biased view of me as a black single mother living in the Valleys,” she said.
“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.”
She added: “I have not been able to grieve for Christopher. I’ve been forbidden from grieving for Christopher, or mourning his passing.
“The decision not to prosecute despite evidence is something I wouldn’t wish upon any mother or any family.”
Ms Joseph said Christopher, who was not a confident swimmer, had been pushed without warning and was “unlawfully killed”.
The inquest heard evidence from four teenagers who saw Mr Pugh push Christopher into the river, which contradicted Mr Pugh’s claim that he stumbled and fell into his friend.
Mr Pugh had first told police Christopher had slipped and fallen – an account Mr Regan described as “clearly untrue” – and then said he had accidentally knocked him in after stumbling.
Jayden Pugh pushed Christopher into the water in a misplaced sense of fun, namely as a prank, and not with any malicious intention
Assistant coroner David Regan
However, delivering his conclusions in the case, Mr Regan said: “In my judgment, Christopher was deliberately pushed into the back from behind by Jayden Pugh using his hands.
“Jayden Pugh pushed Christopher into the water in a misplaced sense of fun, namely as a prank, and not with any malicious intention.”
During the inquest Ms Joseph described racist abuse, including her children being beaten, Christopher being urinated on, and being physically dragged by his neck, that the family had suffered since moving from London to Wales.
Mr Regan described their experience as “extremely disheartening” and said it was to the family’s credit that, despite it, Christopher remained an “active and well-liked member of his community”.
He added: “There has been no suggestion during the inquest that Christopher’s death resulted from a racially motivated act.
“It is important that I make clear at the outset of these findings that there is no evidence at all that Christopher’s death was caused by any racially motivated action or antipathy.
“When he was present at the riverbank he was there with a group of school friends of broadly the same age.”
The coroner said there had been previous misreporting of the case, which meant a narrative conclusion was appropriate given the need to clarify what happened.
During the inquest, police described how Mr Pugh had been dubbed a “killer or murderer” on social media, with one campaign linking Christopher’s death to the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
At times, Mr Pugh’s family were moved from the area and police safeguarding measures were put in place to protect them and their home.
The IOPC published its findings into complaints made by Christopher’s family, after the inquest.
It said it found “some shortcomings” in the way South Wales Police dealt with Christopher’s family, adding that communications by officers could have been better.
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
David Ford, director of the IOPC
A complaint by his family that officers concluded he had died as a result of an accident, without proper investigation, was not upheld.
Evidence did not suggest the family were treated less favourably by police because of their race.
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.”
Assistant Chief Constable Danny Richards, of South Wales Police, said Christopher’s death had “deeply shocked and affected” many people.
“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 said.
Jenny Hopkins, chief crown prosecutor for CPS Cymru/Wales, said the reasons why Mr Pugh was not prosecuted had been made clear previously.
She added: “Our decision that a prosecution was not in the public interest was considered and upheld as lawful by the Administrative Court in 2022.”