What Price Justice? Convicting three men of murder in 1990… about £10m. Bringing the officers who caused three innocent men to be convicted of that murder to trial in 2011… about £30m. Causing their trial to collapse? Priceless.
On Thursday 1st December 2011, nearly 24 years after Lynette White was brutally stabbed to death by Jeffrey Gafoor, the trial of the former police officers for the corruption that led to the convictions of three innocent men known as ‘The Cardiff Three’ collapsed due to prosecution error, writes Charlie Fox. The case was the most complicated, lengthiest and is expected to be the most expensive of its kind in modern legal history.
This has been the matryoshka doll of cases. At its heart lies the truth, invisible beneath layer upon layer of cocked-up investigations and lengthy court cases. Now the outer layer is superglued shut, the truth lost forever.
In order to understand the importance of the trial of these policemen collapsing, it is vital to understand the investigation which sparked it all.
A brutal murder
The story begins with the brutal murder of Lynette White on Valentine’s Day, 1988. Lynette was a 21-year old prostitute working in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay. She was a pretty girl and made good trade, bringing clients to a flat on James Street in the area. Lynette had a black boyfriend called Stephen Miller, known locally as ‘Pineapple’ due to the way he wore his dreadlocks bunched at the top of his head. At the time Miller was 26 but had an IQ of 75 and the mental capability of an 11 year old. They had a tumultuous relationship and had separated a few days before her death. Miller later claimed to have no knowledge of the flat White used for work, the lease to which was held by her friend, Leanne Vilday, another prostitute. At the time Vilday was living with a third prostitute, Angela Psaila near to James Street. Mark Grommek lived above the flat that White used. At 9pm on the 14th February 1988 Leanne Vilday took the police to White’s flat as she had not seen her for some time and was worried about her. They discovered her body. Fully dressed, she had been stabbed at least 50 times. Her throat had been cut through to her spine.
There was a report that a white man with an injured hand had been seen in the vicinity and police inquiries were for some time aimed at finding him. None of the five eventually charged with White’s murder were white. Despite persistent interviews, police inquiries made no progress until late 1988, when Grommek, Vilday and Psaila, who had until then denied all knowledge of the killing, began to ‘volunteer’ information. Grommek said he had opened the front door to several men including Yusef Abdullahi, known locally as ‘Dullah.’ He stated in interview that the men had gone into Lynette’s flat and he had then heard screams. Vilday, Psaila and Grommek, after months of claiming no knowledge at all, finally each named five men who were later charged with being involved.
There was nothing to forensically link any of them to the scene, but there was evidence of blood present from an unidentified male.
At Swansea Crown Court in 1989 five men were put on trial but the case had to be abandoned due to the death of the judge. In 1990 their trial began and Stephen Miller, Tony Paris and Yusef Abdullahi were convicted of Lynette White’s murder in what was to become known as one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice in modern legal history. The two others, cousins John and Ronnie Actie were acquitted.
The prosecution case revolved around the evidence of Miller and the confessions he made in interview. Confessions that only happened after 13 hours of interviewing taking place over five days and 19 tapes of prolonged oppressive bullying tactics used by the officers interviewing him.
Any lawyer worth their salt knows the outcome of this case and the effect that it had on the way police interviews were conducted afterwards. It was a textbook example of how to breach PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act), how not to conduct an interview and a striking illustration of how shoddy legal representation can harm a suspect.
Miller’s solicitor, not present for the first two interviews, sat silently whilst his client was bullied and hectored into making confessions. Having denied involvement well over 300 times, Miller was finally persuaded to make four admissions on which the prosecution relied. Two of the officers who interviewed Miller – DCs Greenwood and Seaford – would later stand trial for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice in the same Crown Court that The Cardiff Three were convicted in 1990 of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Their trial cost the British taxpayer an estimated £10m.
The community in Cardiff exploded with anger. Graffiti littered the walls of Butetown and Tiger Bay, repeating the men’s claims of innocence. The co-defendants barely knew each other, were not part of the same group of friends. The evidence had been weak. How had this happened?
In December of 1992 their appeal was heard over four days. Taylor LJ, after listening to the tapes of Stephen Miller’s interview, declared that ‘short of physical violence, it is hard to conceive of a more hostile and intimidating approach by officers to a suspect’. So horrified was the Judge that he ordered copies of the recordings to be sent to the DPP and the Chairman of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice as ‘an example of what we hope we shall never hear again in this court.’ All three men were released, as without the evidence of Miller’s supposed confession, there was little holding up the convictions of Paris and Abdullahi. Sadly for the three men, the damage had been done. Never again were they to feel comfortable going out of their houses, notoriety and infamy unwillingly brought upon them for the most heinous of cases. All three have since repeatedly stated that the wrongful conviction ruined their lives. Yusef Abdullahi died in January 2011.
In 2000, the investigation into Lynette’s murder was reopened by South Wales Police. Using modern DNA technology and a sample taken from a discarded cigarette wrapper found near her body at the time, a familial DNA link was made on a 14-year old boy known to police. Too young to have been White’s murderer and not a complete match, the police visited his home address and took samples of DNA from his family members.
Jeffrey Gafoor, the boy’s Uncle, provided a complete match. He shortly after made an attempt on his own life and – as he was being taken into an ambulance following the suicide attempt – exclaimed that ‘whatever happens now I deserve it, I killed Lynette White.’ Gafoor had been living near Bridgend for 12 years since the murder and had watched the Cardiff Three convicted of the crime he committed.
In July 2003 at Cardiff Crown Court he pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He had paid White, gone back to the flat with her and then they had had an argument. He had then stabbed her to death.
Following Gafoor’s conviction it quickly became apparent that something had gone terribly wrong in the initial investigation. What had happened was the blatant railroading by officers of an investigation to achieve a result they had predefined, disregarding completely other potential avenues of investigation and ignoring the fact that they may not have the right men. In November 2004 the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) announced that it would carry out a reinvestigation into the original police inquiry.
In April 2005 nine retired police officers were arrested in connection with offences of false imprisonment, conspiring to pervert the course of justice and misconduct in public office. In May of three serving police officers were arrested. By November over 30 arrests had been made, 19 were serving or retired police officers. It took until 2009 for ten to be charged.
Another travesty of justice had yet to occur.
In February 2007, four witnesses who gave evidence at the original murder trial were charged with perjury. In December 2008, three of the accused – Angela Psaila, Leanne Vilday (the two prostitutes) and Mark Grommek (White’s neighbour) – were found guilty of committing perjury and each sentenced to 18 months imprisonment. Vilday’s evidence to the court accused Detective Inspector Mouncher of threatening her with prosecution for murder herself during the original investigation and telling her that her young son would be orphaned if she maintained her account that she knew nothing of any relevance. Mark Grommek tried to rely on a defence of duress but the jury held him accountable for the lies he told in court despite both sides agreeing that he had told the truth for eight months and had only changed his account after extreme pressure from the police. Grommek stated in court that Detective Inspector Richard Powell had thrown a chair during an interview and threatened him with a ‘blanket job’ (putting a blanket over him and beating him so that the marks would not show). He also told the court that he was threatened with false imprisonment if he maintained his account that he had not seen or heard anything.
Nicholas Dean QC, prosecuting, later to prosecute the officers involved, accepted that Mr Grommek’s allegations of police malpractice were true. However, he told Grommek he had opportunities to tell the truth and he had not taken them. Duress had not been available as the alleged threats had been made some time before his admissions. Sentencing, Mr Justice Maddison said: ‘It’s been submitted on your behalf, accepted by the prosecution, and I accept it myself… you were seriously hounded, bullied, threatened, abused and manipulated by the police during a period of several months leading up to late 1988, as a result of which you felt compelled to agree to false accounts they suggested to you.’ However, perjury was ‘an offence which strikes at the heart of the system of the administration of justice.’
By the time the officers involved in the original investigation into White’s murder came to stand trial, all eight had retired, removing them from susceptibility to IPCC investigation. Four other ex-policemen were scheduled to stand trial in 2012.
Standing trial for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice were Graham Mouncher (retired Chief Inspector) Thomas Page (retired Chief Inspector) Richard Powell (retired Superintendent) John Seaford (retired Detective Constable) Michael Daniels (retired Detective Constable) Peter Greenwood (retired Detective Constable) Paul Jennings (retired Detective Constable) Paul Stephen (retired Sergeant) Graham Mouncher also faced charges of perjury alongside Violet Perriam and Ian Massey, two civilians.
What went wrong?
Last month on November 28th, despite the passing of nearly 24 years and the fact that several innocent men had been found guilty on police evidence that had subsequently been found to be inadequate, the trial judge ordered a review of evidence on the basis that there were ‘irregularities in the criminal disclosure process’ The prosecution case collapsed on the 1st December. What had happened?
The prosecution provided a statement admitting over 12 fatal errors. The judge held that the trial could not continue as it would be unfair. Files had been intentionally destroyed by South Wales Police’s investigating officers. South Wales Police officers investigating former South Wales Police officers, some of whom only retired in 2009; the decision to self-investigate surely in hindsight to be considered a poor one at best.
The file that Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Coutts, who headed the cold case review, was accused of giving the order to destroy was a copy of material relating to a complaint made by John Actie to the IPCC. Although it was only copy documentation, the destruction meant that it would be impossible to compare the original material provided by the IPCC with the copy – some could have been removed or added to. No record of the destruction had been made by the officers involved. Prosecutor Nicholas Dean QC stated that ‘deliberate destruction of documents by the senior investigating officer appears to have occurred.’ That it was ‘impossible to give meaningful re-assurances that no other material had been treated similarly.’ He took care to emphasise that at that time the prosecution did not know the reason for the destruction or the lack of recording of that destruction, and went on to say that ‘given the stage reached in the proceedings, the correct course of action is to offer no evidence, thus inviting verdicts of not guilty and ending the trial’. It later emerged that the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer himself had made the decision to offer no evidence. Starmer has called for a thorough investigation into the circumstances of the collapse of this trial, and the IPCC are beginning an investigation.
The seven-year re-investigation together with the trial has been estimated to have a final bill of £30m. At the moment defence costs alone have amassed over £8m. However, the public purse’ bill could rise again as it is understood that some of the former police officers intend to make wrongful arrest claims.
Anthony Barnfather of Pannone Solicitors said that acquitted defendant Chief Inspector Mouncher had ‘always maintained the integrity of the original investigation’ and that ‘CI Mouncher leaves the court with his professional reputation intact and his character unblemished’.
These men are indeed innocent of all charges but ‘maintaining the integrity of the original investigation’ seems an inexcusably poor choice of wording. Not one but several judges, more than one DPP and multiple barristers for both the defence and prosecution in each case that has arisen as a result of the wrongful conviction of The Cardiff Three have recognised that South Wales Police gravely mishandled the original investigation. We must remember however that the case against these officers was not lost on a technicality; it was lost because of the appalling errors in disclosure and because of the destruction of evidence by the investigating officers.
The real travesty is that no one will be brought to account for the actions of the officers in the original case. No one will ever know who, if any, of the officers found not guilty in the collapsed trial were morally guilty. We will never know who else should have been brought to trial. Where the criminal courts are concerned, the curtain has closed on the Lynette White murder saga. We now only have to await the results of the IPCC investigation into the South Wales Police handling of the recent trial.
What price justice? The final trial bill will be settled in the next few months; justice however, will not be found here.