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Law unto themselves

After five months of a trial costing ‘tens of millions of pounds’, the collapse of the biggest ever miscarriage of justice trial, involving eight police officers and two witnesses over the wrongful conviction of three men for the 1988 murder of Lynette White in Cardiff has led to the same old question – rhetorical, it has to be said – about whether or not there’s one law for the police and one law for the rest of us?

No evidence

The accused officers walked free not because a jury acquitted them – the jury never got the chance to pass any verdict at all – but because the CPS and police investigators had destroyed copies of documents relating to a complaint and that destruction was not noted. Apparently this meant the officers and witnesses could not get a fair trial (irony is not dead).

Stephen Miller, Tony Paris and the late Yusuf Abdullahi, who became known as the ‘Cardiff Three’, were not so fortunate. They, along with cousins Ronnie and John Actie (both eventually acquitted but not before spending two years in prison awaiting trial), were all accused of the appalling murder despite there being a complete absence of any credible evidence against them.

The case became one of the most notorious in British legal history, the first miscarriage of justice to be resolved by the conviction of the real murderer. The three were released from life sentences in 1992 their convictions overturned after DNA evidence, available at the time of their trial, proved conclusively they were not responsible. Their innocence, already not in doubt, was confirmed when Jeffrey Gafoor (who has since confessed) was convicted on the same DNA evidence in 2003 (after an entirely separate police investigation).

Systematic bullying

The decision to halt the trial means the only people held accountable for a scandalous miscarriage of justice are three witnesses who resisted systematic bullying by officers for months before cracking under duress, and were then convicted for the lies they had been forced to tell. In 2008 Mark Grommek, Leanne Vilday and Angela Psaila – were given 18 months for perjury.  Vilday and Psaila, were at the time prostitutes and acknowledged as being particularly vulnerable. Vilday was threatened with jail and losing custody of her young child, should she fail to give evidence against the ‘Cardiff Three’. Grommek pleaded not guilty on grounds of duress, though the peculiar vagaries of British justice meant this was not actually available as a defence to the charge, despite Lord Taylor, then chief justice, acknowledging that the police techniques used in respect of the witnesses were ‘almost passing belief’. ‘It is hard to conceive of a more hostile or intimidating approach by officers to a suspect,’ he said.

The failure of the trial means that in all likelihood there will never be an investigation into why and how the original trial was ever allowed to go ahead. A public inquiry has been called for but with no political impetus behind it there is little chance of it happening and certainly not with the same fanfare and resources currently being expended on ‘phone hacking’. It also means the only people who have been held to account are three witnesses who were effectively forced to lie – whilst the police who were the real reason behind the false evidence remain unpunished.

An appalling vista

The end of a trial that never was, occurred in the same week as news that Sgt Mark Andrews, a ‘thug in uniform’ according to one witness, is to be reinstated to his former position, despite seemingly damning video evidence of him allegedly mistreating a prisoner.

Sgt Andrews was dismissed by Wiltshire Police after being seen on CCTV in July 2008 dragging Pamela Somerville, 60, across the floor. Although found guilty of ABH and sentenced to 6 months in September 2010 he was freed six days later on bail pending an appeal which he later won in November 2010. Though conceding that Sgt Andrews ‘could have done things better’, Mr Justice Bean at Oxford Crown Court quashed the conviction saying he was satisfied that Andrews had not deliberately meant to harm Somerville (who is now partially blind in her left eye) and that her injuries ‘were probably caused by her falling to the floor after letting go of the door frame’. Andrews told the appeal that she was the most unpredictable prisoner he had ever come across, had been abusive and that ‘I don’t think I did anything wrong’. People can watch the video footage of Sgt Andrews online and judge for themselves and see stills here.

Some 31 years ago Lord Denning, dismissed the first appeal of the Birmingham Six saying: ‘If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous… . That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say: ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further’.’

Lord Denning, less a voice of judicial good than his supporters claim, was of course proved entirely wrong when after a further 11 years in jail the ‘Birmingham Six’ convictions were quashed in 1991 in a blizzard of appalling evidence of police collusion, threats and violence toward the suspects. He was also wrong as regards what a ‘sensible person’ would believe about the police. Even in 1980 the idea of police officers as a cross between Dixon of Dock Green and Mr Plod from Noddy was patently ridiculous. There is a growing acceptance that many in the police view themselves as above the law, untouchable – something the contrasting fortunes and misfortunes of the main players in these sorry sagas confirms.

 

 

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10 Responses to Law unto themselves

  1. Rob_tillyer Reply

    December 8, 2011 at 11:30 am

    These miscarriages of justice are tragic and make me sick to my stomach, however, they were committed by a tiny minority of officers who in my opinion should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Your point in reference to ‘many officers’ feeling like they are above the law, perhaps made to incite comment is an unfounded opinion that makes officers such as myself feel villified despite having a reasonable, open and fair approach to the application of the law. I ask that you concede that the greatest proportion of officers hold themselves to a higher standard and certainly do not consider themselves above the law.

  2. Matthew Evans Reply

    December 8, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    ‘Many’ is a relative term but the way the ‘Cardiff 3′ and witnesses were treated by South Wales Police was systematic, institutionalised, not just some ‘rogue’ officers – how else to explain such practices being routinely used without anyone within that force taking action. And it is not just South Wales, West Midlands, South Yorkshire, the Met to name just a few others have all been the focus of crticism about their interrogation techniques and practices and not just around individual officers.

    The list of those who’ve died in police custody or who had contact with the police immediately before their deaths is now 1418 (see INQUEST website) since 1990. The last time a police officer was prosecuted for the death of somebody in custody – was in 1969, when the two officers who were implicated in the death of David Oluywale, the first black man to die in police custody in the UK, were found guilty of assault and sentenced to a pitiful few months in prison.

    Since 1969 there has never been one successful prosecution of a single police officer, despite a verdict of unlawful killing in several instances – a verdict handed down only after years, or even decades, of work, campaigning and painstaking legal challenges by the families of those killed.

    And on a less evocative subject, I think if you asked people who have, over recent years encountered the police on protest marches, you would find a sizeable section (and not just Black Flag etc) who do not, I am afraid, come away with a great impression of policing techniques and the aggression used.

  3. Chrisservante Reply

    December 8, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    as a member of the ‘often arrested’ persons of this world ( over 20 )( hasten to add i have never been arrested for a real crime ) it was quite apparent even from the late 70s that the police were answerable to no one and the magistrates court has no real sensible standng except … ‘if the police say you did whatever you can not argue otherwise’ The police are always quick to say ..’oh that is just a bad apple’ , I can nont be the only person who knows that entire area officers are all as bad as each other. And i can also say it is luck rather than judgement i am even still alive today as to the quantities of my blood that has been left on various cells over the years ! Even only a few years ago the IPCC happily backed the police after yet another arrest. And i was only out there to help them catch the criminals that time! No matter how many complaints are made against the police they will always back each other and lie to do so ! I know first hand !

  4. Anonymous Reply

    December 11, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I was sitting next to a long term Recorder at the Inn the other evening, as you do, and we discussed police practice. In her view, the Police have progressed quite a bit from their Life on Mars days.

    I would guess that change began on publication of the McPherson Report – where an incident is “racist” if the victim says it is.

    Obviously, there won’t be many rolling out support for Sgt Andrews. What I object to is the lazy leap of logic linking the above incident to current matters in orther forces.

    Currently serving officers fear the law and fear being turned over by the IPCC on spurious complaints. I don’t know any who believe, as the author postulates, that they are “above the law”. The only reason IPCC doesn’t pursue is if the complainant’s story crumbles on independent scrutiny.

    As for the deaths in custody, the question to ask is exactly how many were “killed by police” v the number who died of other causes (such as OD or choking on drugs they took). My guess, given the lack of jury convictions, is that it is rare indeed for cops to murder or mistreat prisoners in their custody.

  5. Anonymous Reply

    December 11, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    ps

    I’m not sure why the author isn’t as scathing about the judiciary as he is about the police.

  6. Matthew Evans Reply

    December 12, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    The judiciary and lawyers are culpable as the Lord Denning quote makes clear.

    It may be ‘rare’ for people to die in police custody at the hands of officers yet, since 1990, there have been 11 unlawful killing verdicts following inquests – Ian Tomlinson, Harry Stanley, Roger Sylvester, Christopher Alder, Alton Manning, Ibrahima Sey, Shiji Lapite, Richard O’Brien, Leon Patterson, Omasase Lumumba, Oliver Pryce – real people – yet only two (in the cases of Alder and ‘O’Brien) resulted in prosecutions with officers being acquitted in both cases. There is a disparity there, and an uncomfortable one.

    As for the IPCC does anyone really take them and their investigations seriously?

  7. Matthew Evans Reply

    December 13, 2011 at 12:11 am

    ps

    Life on mars was a fictional drama set in the 70′s. Operation Jackpot was a real life investigation into police corruption in the 1990′s, specifically Stoke Newington, and led to the complete disbanding of the drugs squad.

  8. Pingback: Cardiff Three article « Prisoners' Advice Service News

  9. James Vine Reply

    December 22, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Remember also Tom Denning’s words “Be you never so high, the law is above you,” as Dr Thomas Fuller wrote in 1733.” Spot the inconsistency!

  10. Satish Sekar Reply

    May 22, 2012 at 9:08 pm

    Start by reading Fitted In:The Cardiff 3 and the Lynette White Inquiry. Then get angry. Then organise. Then perhaps it won’t happen again!

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