Christopher Kapessa, described as “loving, caring, passionate and very protective” by his family, died after entering the River Cynon in Fernhill in Rhondda Cynon Taf, South Wales, on 1 July 2019.
Calling the incident a “misplaced sense of fun”, assistant coroner David Regan ruled the teenager did not consent to be pushed in, as he gave his findings in a narrative conclusion at the inquest into the boy’s death on Monday.
Describing her son as “always thoughtful, sensitive, full of hope” the mother of Christopher Kapessa, Alina Joseph, said her son was “unlawfully killed” and criticised South Wales Police in a statement read outside South Wales Central Coroners’ Court.
The police watchdog, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), on Monday found “some shortcomings” in the way the force dealt with Christopher’s family, but said evidence did not suggest they were treated less favourably by police because of their race.
Four witnesses told the inquest in Pontypridd that another boy, who can now be named as Jayden Pugh, had pushed Christopher from a ledge into the water.
Mr Pugh, who was 14 at the time and is now 19, told the inquest that he accidentally fell into Christopher, did not deliberately push him in and did not suggest doing so.
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’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.”
He added: “Christopher died by submersion after being intentionally pushed by another child. The push was a dangerous prank however, the child responsible for it did not intend to cause Christopher’s death.”
Christopher, who was not a confident swimmer according to his mother, began panicking and shouted for help.
Other children, including the boy who pushed him into the river, jumped in and tried to rescue him, but Christopher disappeared below the surface at about 5.30pm.
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, and 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.
Speaking outside court on Monday, Ms Joseph 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. 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.”
The IOPC said in a statement on Monday that it found communications by officers with Christopher’s family could have been better.
One complaint was upheld, relating to a meeting between his family and South Wales Police in which one police officer was “ill-judged and insensitive”.
However, 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 his family were treated less favourably by police because of their race.
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: “South Wales Police accepted and implemented our recommendations.”
Speaking outside the coroner’s court on Monday, Ms Joseph said she knew her son would be fulfilling his dreams if alive today.
She said: “Christopher will always be remembered for bringing immense joy and happiness to me and to everyone who he met.”
Mr Regan said Christopher had gone to the “red bridge” with friends from Mountain Ash Comprehensive School. Some were intending to jump into the water.
South Wales Police officers were initially told by witnesses that Christopher had fallen into the water. The children were re-interviewed following rumours that he had been pushed.
The force later passed a file of evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to consider bringing charges.
In July 2020, the CPS announced that it was not in the “public interest” to prosecute Mr Pugh for allegedly pushing Christopher into the river during a “foolish prank” though there was “evidence to support” a manslaughter prosecution.
Ms Joseph accused the CPS and South Wales Police of institutional racism, claiming the decision would have been different if her son was white.
In July 2021, the family won the right to a judicial review of the decision not to prosecute Mr Pugh. However, following a hearing in January 2022, judges at the High Court dismissed the application.
During the inquest, Ms Joseph described racist abuse – including her children being beaten, Christopher being urinated on, and physically dragged by his neck – 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 this inquest that Christopher’s death resulted from a racially motivated act.”
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.
In a statement issued following the conclusion of the inquest, Assistant Chief Constable Danny Richards of South Wales Police offered his condolences on behalf of the force and said: “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.”
Jenny Hopkins, chief crown prosecutor for Crown Prosecution Service 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.”