QC who worked on Julian Assange case jumped in front of West Hampstead train after being allowed out of private hospital
PUBLISHED: 15:22 19 August 2016 | UPDATED: 21:55 19 August 2016
A "brilliant" barrister who represented Julian Assange ended his life by leaping under a train after he was allowed to leave a private mental health hospital to go for a walk at 5am.
John Jones QC, a 48-year-old married father of two who worked at renowned legal chambers Doughty Street, was being treated for severe depression and had recently had his medication changed when he died at West Hampstead Thameslink station on April 18 this year.
An inquest at St Pancras Coroner’s Court heard that the lawyer – who worked on high profile war crimes cases at The Hague – suffered from “obsessive overthinking” which had become prevalent following a stressful period in his life.
He lived in Golders Green, and was staying as a voluntary patient at The Nightingale hospital in Marylebone in the weeks leading up to his death.
The day before he died was a Sunday and Mr Jones had been allowed to visit his family.
His mother, Peggy, met him in a local park, and told the inquest: “I was shocked at how thin he was. He couldn’t stop shaking, and I wondered what effect the medication was having.”
He returned to The Nightingale in the evening, but complained of not being able to sleep at 1.10am, and was given medication.
At 5.10am, he asked to go for a walk.
Nurse Katie McTaggart said she allowed him to leave after completing a risk assessment form because she said he did not seem to be in any danger, and walking helped to calm his mind.
At approximately 7am, the court heard that Mr Jones leapt to his death.
The train driver gave a written statement to say it appeared to be “a deliberate act”.
CCTV footage of the death was not played to the court because coroner Mary Hassell said she thought it would be “too distressing” but that she had watched it, and was satisfied that “nobody else was involved”.
Recording a narrative verdict, Ms Hassell said she could not be certain that Mr Jones intended to kill himself because the balance of his mind was affected.
Ms Hassell said: “John Jones died instantaneously when he jumped in front of a moving train.
“However, the state of his mental health at the time meant that he lacked the necessary intent to categorise this as suicide.”
Mr Jones’ wife, lawyer Misa Zgonec-Rozej, told the inquest: “I feel horrified that he was allowed out so early in the morning, in such a fragile state and without having slept properly for days.
“I genuinely believe that John did not want to die, and that he didn’t know what he was doing (when he jumped).”
Ms Hassell was critical of the fact that Mr Jones was allowed to isolate himself in the hospital and had not been made to engage with the various forms of therapy on offer.
She said she would make a Prevention of Future Deaths report recommending that The Nightingale insists that voluntary patients participate in therapy, as Mr Jones spent most of his time there in his room, alone with his thoughts.
Ms Hassell asked the consultant psychiatrist, Dr Pereira, who treated him, whether he would have had Mr Jones admitted to an NHS hospital if he hadn’t been a private patient.
Dr Pereira said: “It’s a very good question, and I think the answer would be no.”
He said there would be no reason to stop Mr Jones from leaving the hospital whenever he wanted, as he did not meet the threshold for sectioning, and was there on a voluntary basis.
Ms Hassell criticised the “perfunctory” risk assessment form because she said patients could simply tick the boxes with the answers they knew would allow them to leave.
The inquest heard that Mr Jones decided to stop taking Chlonazepam, a benzodopiate, a couple of weeks before he died as the combination of medication he was taking was making him drowsy and unable to concentrate.
He had been receiving treatment for only a few weeks when he died, and was signed off sick from Doughty Street, where he worked alongside leading barristers including Geoffrey Robertson, Amal Clooney and Holborn and St Pancras MP Keir Starmer.
Dr Pereira said Mr Jones felt “ashamed” of his problems, and was particularly troubled that he had to stop working on “a high profile case”.
Although not named in court, it was well-documented that he was working on the case of WikiLeaks founder Mr Assange, whose extradition to Sweden Mr Jones was trying to prevent when he became ill.
The court heard that Oxford graduate Mr Jones had some “financial and marital” difficulties, and had found relocating back to London after living in The Hague “stressful”.
Mr Jones’ parents gave statements to say their son first displayed signs of mental disorder as a teenage schoolboy in the US.
Ms Jones said her son enjoyed a happy childhood, spent partly in California when her husband, an academic, was at Stanford University, and that John had an “idealised” image of America.
Although he went on to achieve great things, Mr Jones was expelled from a prestigious boys’ boarding school, Phillips Exeter in New Hampshire, for “several ill-judged, high spirited antics” – a source of regret which troubled him for the rest of his life.
His mother said: “This became the focus of his obsessional thinking, and was a matter he would return to frequently, and during his admission to The Nightingale hospital.”
Mr Jones then attended another boarding school in America – but became “deeply unhappy”, leading to psychiatric intervention and his return to the UK.
Although it was suggested he may have feigned illness to leave the school, Dr Pereira said he believed this was a “hypermanic” episode – consistent with bipolar disorder, which Mr Jones may have suffered from.
Mr Jones attended a private sixth form college in England before winning a place at Oxford – but the court heard that “scars from the American school episode” would resurface from time to time, causing him to “ruminate” on his life choices.
His mother said: “He hoped, I think, that as my field was psychotherapy, I might be able to offer explanations – but I was unable to do so, and these could be dark, dark times for John.”
Ms Jones said her son returned from The Hague in September 2015 in good spirits, but he and his family moved into a home which required renovating and he became “increasingly agitated and stressed” and had trouble sleeping in early 2016.
She said her son talked about suicide “only in the abstract” and told her he would never take his life because of his children.
As a human rights lawyer, Mr Jones had saved others from torture around the world, but told his mother his downward spiral into despair was “horrible pain... the worst possible torture you could devise”.
Ms Jones and her husband, Hugh, had their son admitted to The Nightingale on Dr Pereira’s recommendation.
But she said she was surprised at the atmosphere of the place: “It wasn’t that it was unpleasant...but the informality seemed out of sync with the seriousness of John’s condition.”
She said she was “shocked” at Dr Pereira’s treatment of John, and thought he was trying to “break him” when he made a “dismissive” remark about “grandiosity” and told him he “had treated lots of silks and members of the government”.
But Dr Pereira said he was trying to break down the stigma John felt about having a mental health problem by letting him know that it was common in all walks of life.
Dr Pereira said Mr Jones was worried about “reputational damage” and would avoid walking around Westminster Magistrates’ Court – which is close to The Nightingale – in case he bumped into any of the barristers.
Mr Jones’ wife said they had a “wonderful relationship” although John was someone who “often needed encouragement”.
She described how his difficulty sleeping left him exhausted and worried about his ability to perform at work.
“He started doubting himself and all the decisions he had made in his life. He felt he was useless and had failed.
“Objectively, it was so irrational. He had a loving family who he adored, he was incredibly successful, and we had a positive future ahead of us.”
She was “surprised” when her husband was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a one hour meeting with Dr Pereira because she said: “John could be obsessive, and could ruminate, but he didn’t have highs and lows.”
Mr Jones tried to get an adjournment on the Assange case in March as he was unable to work, his mind foggy with medication, but the judge refused, pushing him into “a dark, depressive phase”, according to his wife.
Dr Pereira said: “He was very disappointed at not being able to do the case... He felt his career was beginning to unravel.”
The doctor said that bipolar disorder was notoriously difficult to diagnose correctly, and that Mr Jones may in fact have suffered from a condition known as “obsessive ruminating disorder”.
He said that Mr Jones was reluctant to open up because there were certain things he didn’t want to talk about and was convinced he would be “banished from the world” if he did, and that he felt “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”.
Mr Jones told Dr Pereira there were certain “trigger” words and films he had seen, any mention of which would set off his negative thought patterns.
He left seven documents on his work computer, which police took from Doughty Street, in which there are clues to the workings of his brilliant but troubled mind.
In these documents, Mr Jones said the boarding school which expelled him had been “the perfect storm of high expectations, lack of finance and failing at work” – circumstances which seemed to him to be replicated in the build-up to his death.
He wrote: “Every morning I wake up with the mental pain of the fact that I was expelled from Exeter... the pain has not diminished... I feel that facing up to it may leave me unable to function... I need to be able to know that I suffered an adolescent trauma, that I’m not loopy now. I have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for the past 30 years... It’s a bit like Tom Cruise’s character in (the film) Vanilla Sky.”
Asked if he would do anything differently for Mr Jones with the benefit of hindsight, Dr Pereira said he might insist that he engage with therapy from day one, but said: “Whether that would have resulted in a positive outcome, I’m not sure.”
If you are struggling to cope and need someone to talk to, contact The Samaritans 24-hour helpline by calling 116 123. The number is free and you don’t have to be suicidal to call. Alternatively email firstname.lastname@example.org