The Tottenham 3: the legacy of the Broadwater Farm riot
Natalie Smith revisits the Broadwater Farm riot of 1985, the killing of PC Keith Blakelock and the case of the Tottenham 3.
It was a death that led to disorder. Cynthia Jarrett’s son Floyd was arrested in North London whilst driving his car. He was stopped because his tax disc was out of date but police thought (wrongly) he’d stolen the car and arrested him. When in custody, the police still didn’t believe it was his car so obtained authority to search his address based on rumours from an officer, who thought (wrongly) Floyd was known for handling stolen goods. It was a speculative search but police attended his mother’s address on the Broadwater Farm Estate in Tottenham. Cynthia Jarrett was watching television with her daughter when police arrived and during the search she became distressed and suffered a massive heart attack and died.
The local community was upset and felt her death was as a consequence of this unwarranted invasion of her home. They wanted justice for her. A peaceful march to the local police station in Tottenham ended in anger and despite the call from many peaceful protestors to remain calm, on the October 6, 1985, violence erupted. Rioting described as the most violent ever seen, broke out on the Broadwater Farm Estate.
The police officers sent to the estate faced danger. Firefighters too were sent in and PC Keith Blakelock was one of several officers tasked with protecting them whilst they worked. But despite the fact their presence was to do no more than save lives from the raging fires the police came under serious attack by an armed group wearing masks and crash helmets. Whilst retreating to safety PC Blakelock stumbled, lost his footing and was set upon with machetes, knives, bats and bricks. His protection helmet was removed and he was subjected to a devastatingly violent assault which mortally wounded him. Of the 40 stab wounds counted on his body, eight had been to his head which led those who saw him afterwards to believe his assailants had tried to decapitate him.
X,Y and Z
Once the violence had calmed the police’s profound grief and anger at what had happened to one of their own led to an unrelenting determination to find the killers. The media urged them to find the culprits. However, they faced enormous difficulties, they had no photographic or forensic evidence to identify those responsible. The police had to find ways to extract information.
The residents of the estate complained once again of feeling under siege. Police were drafted in and hundreds of people were arrested. Of the first wave of arrests, over half were youths. Complaints were made by residents that juveniles were deliberately targeted, held incommunicado, given no access to solicitors or their families and those families that were notified, were often given misinformation as to where their children were.
Eventually the confessions the police so desperately sought were obtained and a witness to the killing was found. Three juveniles known at the time as X, Y and Z were charged with murder. They were aged 14, 15 and 13 years old. X had accepted involvement in the violence on the estate but denied being part of the group that murdered PC Blakelock. A witness, Jason Cobham, told police when interviewed he had seen X disappear into the crowd that killed the officer. Y under interrogation, said that he’d kicked and cut the officer and after wiping the knife gave it to someone else. Z confessed to being given a sword and told to cut the body as he’d seen too much. Y and Z later denied that any of what they said was true.
During their interrogations, children Y and Z named a man from the estate, as having been involved. Police believed that Winston Silcott was the ring leader, not that they had any evidence to support the suspicion. But when his name was extracted in the confessions they had what they believed to be sufficient evidence to arrest him. He was 26 years old. He too was interrogated by police and for four of the five interviews he faced he said nothing.
Until eventually, when questioned by Detective Chief Superintendent Melvin about what the youths had said, he’d allegedly replied: ‘They’re only kids. No one’s going to believe them. You say they said that. How do I know? I don’t go with kids.’ To the question, did he murder PC Blakelock, Melvin recorded the answer: ‘You ain’t got enough evidence. Those kids will never go to court. You wait and see.’
Winston Silcott was charged with murder based on this statement. He along with two other adults, Engin Raghip (19 years old) and Mark Braithwaite (20 years old) were to join the youths at trial. Both had been interrogated and both had allegedly confessed to a role in the killing.
‘The machete death case’
On the January 14, 1987, all six faced trial in court 2 of the Old Bailey. The Crown didn’t seek to prove who struck the fatal blow, they proceeded on the basis this was a joint enterprise murder. The public interest in the trial was huge. On the first day of trial, the Sun newspaper published a front- page picture of Winston Silcott. The headlines were sensationalist: ‘First picture in machete death case’, ‘face of man on riot PC murder charge’. The media coverage of the trial was unrelenting and detailed the murder of PC Blakelock and the violence that had erupted on the estate in October 1985, the horror of which cried out for justice.
The Crown’s case was based on confession evidence. The six had admitted a role and the court had to scrutinise those confessions, especially since their only eye witness, Jason Cobham, who identified X, was shown under cross examination to have lied and had given his evidence to avoid a length prison sentence.
The trial judge was concerned as evidence began to emerge of the circumstances in which the confessions of the youths had been made. Z had been the youngest, only 13 when arrested originally for looting a local supermarket during the riot. His brother and mother were arrested with him.
Questions about stolen food soon turned to an interrogation about the murder of PC Blakelock. His family were released and police delayed charging him for the offence of burglary so they could hold him for three days. He was interviewed five times. The total length of his interrogation was 15 hours and during it, this child of 13 was wearing only his underpants and a blanket. He broke down and cried. He’d been held incommunicado for at least 48 hours. The judge found that his treatment by police had been oppressive. It rendered his confession unreliable. The judge made it clear that he found the account given by Z ‘fantastical’, ‘strange’ and ‘make believe’. He criticised the police for refusing him access to a solicitor, delaying the access by an appropriate adult and failing to contact his parents who could have acted as the appropriate adult.
The stories of X and Y were similar. X was held for 40 hours and interviewed five times. Y was held for three days and interviewed six times for a total of 10 hours. He’d been held in isolation for four hours. No solicitor had access to him. His mother wasn’t allowed into custody, and a teacher was found to act as his appropriate adult. The judge rejected that confession not only for the failures having been shown in safeguarding his rights but he was in fact illiterate, innumerate, had a diminished ability to recall and remember events and had the mental age of a seven-year-old. The Judge found Y and Z’s confessions to the crime of murder unreliable and he acquitted them, removing the decision from the jury. Given the unreliability of the witness Cobham the Judge also acquitted X of murder.
But the murder trial continued with the adult offenders and it took the jury three days to return verdicts of guilty. After such violence, the state felt some justice had been done. But many didn’t. A thousand official police pictures of the riots had been taken on October 8, 1985 as events unfolded. Winston Silcott appeared in none of them. The only evidence against him was an alleged ambiguous statement made which Winston Silcott never accepted saying.
There was nothing else.
Free the ‘Tottenham 3’
All three young adults were sentenced to life imprisonment. Their initial appeals were rejected. For another four years the Broadwater Defence Campaign fought tirelessly to free the ‘Tottenham 3’. It was a local community organisation that didn’t stop working with their MP Bernie Grant to keep the case in the public gaze. They wrote letters, gained the support of other campaigns, wrote to anyone who might have influence including the Soviet embassy, produced newsletters, engaged with the media and even managed to get Winston Silcott elected honorary student union president of the London School of Economics. It took a group of committed local citizens, dedicated to overturning a miscarriage of justice, to obtain enough momentum to ensure the Court of Appeal looked at the case the lawyers for each defendant desperately wanted looked at again.
Eventually in 1990 the Home Secretary referred the case back to the Court of Appeal. The evidence was that Engin Raghip was a highly suggestible man who had the mental age of a 10 to 11 year old. The police had interviewed him for hours over several days, denied him access to a solicitor through part of it and frankly could have made him confess to whatever they liked such was his suggestibility. Mark Braithwaite, along with all his other co-defendants at trial had been interrogated for an excessive amount of time, the majority of which was without a solicitor. He claimed at trial he made the statements he did because of the oppressive conditions; he was tired, hungry, alone and claustrophobic.
As for Winston Silcott, experts formed the view that those pages of interview when he challenged the police that ‘they’d never get the kids to court’ was in fact inserted afterwards and had not been part of the original contemporaneous notes. The confession that wasn’t even a confession, turned out to not even be true. When the CPS was presented with the evidence that notes had been contaminated they accepted all three convictions were unsafe.
After the convictions were overturned, Bernie Grant, MP for Tottenham worked with the Metropolitan Police to appeal for witnesses to the murder of PC Blakelock. Barbara Mills QC who represented Winston Silcott became the Director of Public Prosecutions and began a prosecution against those officers involved in the case for perverting the course of justice. They were acquitted. A garden was set up on the Broadwater Farm Estate to remember those who had lost their lives in October 1985.
The investigation relied heavily on the interrogation of youths. The lessons learnt are important to remember, as never have we faced a time when so many young people are accused of violent offences. It is easy to forget their vulnerability. We perhaps treat them like adults because the crimes they are accused of are so very grown up.
Winston Silcott was innocent of murder. There was no evidence of his involvement. From a hunch, the police tried to find evidence just as they did when they went to Mrs Jarrett’s home. Despite the lack of evidence which pointed towards Winston Silcott’s innocence, they decided to find evidence to point to his guilt. But there is still a whiff left, as if he got away with it, a similar whiff that attaches to many who have their convictions overturned. Whenever Winston Silcott is mentioned, so too is the fact he was convicted of another murder, a fight with a man in a club, as if it makes the miscarriage of justice one we can more easily accept. Perhaps we have to distort the truth because to acknowledge that someone can be convicted of a crime, when there was no credible evidence against them is a huge betrayal. Any old justice, is not justice.
Determination to convict someone for the crime meant safeguards were not rigidly enforced. Confessions were persuaded that were worthless. The prosecution put a case to the jury which was to coin a phrase nothing but fake news. Perhaps the media and the public have a responsibility too. The pressure on the state to find those responsible for such an egregious crime made them break.
Passion has a place, the passion demonstrated by the Broadwater Defence Campaign was vital. But it doesn’t have any place in a police investigation. The Metropolitan police had lost one of their own and were perhaps not best placed to try and achieve justice. Victims cannot direct investigations or prosecutions; their grief is too profound for us to expect them to have a dispassionate view of the evidence. The need for calm when we are at our least calm after a hideous crime has been committed is essential. The pressure to find justice can often lead to no justice being found and when we hear the name ‘PC Blakelock’ we will forever remember him as a victim of a great injustice.
First published on July 13, 2018