THE JUSTICE TRAP
Was a Police Officer Sacked and Jailed for a Violent Assault actually the Victim of a Cover-Up?
PC Danny Major spent four months in prison for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Faced with an unhelpful and inactive miscarriages of justice watchdog, he is still fighting to clear his name.
A six-year career in the police force came to an end in 2006 when PC Danny Major was found guilty of beating up a teenager in his custody, sacked and jailed.
A uniformed patrol police officer in Leeds at the time, Major always denied any involvement in the assault that left 18-year-old Sean Rimington badly hurt one night in September 2003 at what was then Leeds Bridewell custody suite.
Major has always insisted that he was framed by colleagues. The boy had been discovered crashed out drunk outside Millgarth Police Station where he was arrested at around 4.30 a.m. and taken to the custody suite.
Shortly after the teenager was rushed to hospital, Major believes that the guilty officer responsible panicked, thinking the victim was about to die, and decided to pin the blame on an expendable younger colleague. On Major’s account, multiple officers lied on oath, fabricated and suppressed evidence and then their superiors covered the whole thing up.
It took two trials to bring Danny Major down.
The first resulted in a hung jury and at the second he was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
“In my view the West Yorkshire Police Station at the Bridewell in September 2003 was not fit for purpose,” said Judge Roger Scott when he sentenced Major. Addressing the prosecuting counsel, the judge said: “We saw an unorganised, unsupervised rabble. You described it accurately and very politely as a ‘shambles’. In my view, it requires further investigation and possible charges against a large number of police officers.”
I can take one corrupt police officer – you expect good and bad anywhere – but not a corrupt police force.Bernadette Major
Major served four months in prison. He said the whole experience has been devastating for him and his family.
“It has been all-consuming. I still wake up in the night thinking about it,’ he told me in 2015. “I am very determined to clear my name. I will never stop. In fact, everything that I worked so hard for is based upon me clearing my name.”
It is bizarre that he is still fighting to clear his name. It is now more than three years since Greater Manchester Police reported on its two-year investigation into the conduct of neighbouring force, West Yorkshire, over the incident.
“In 30 years in the police service I have never seen a report as critical of one police force by another force,” Ian Hanson, chairman of the Greater Manchester Police Federation, said. “The report vindicates Danny Major and what he has been saying for 12 years.”
The investigation, Operation Lamp, accepted Major’s account of the incident and found that the officer whose account was accepted by the jury “either deliberately or inadvertently misled the court”. The case was immediately referred to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and there it remains – seemingly stuck in the Birmingham-based offices of the miscarriage of justice watchdog.
Freak CCTV Malfunction
The allegations against Major couldn’t have be more serious.
It seems inconceivable that such a vicious attack could ever have taken place unnoticed within the precincts of a police station in one of our major cities on a weekend.
Not only was the station busy with the constant stream of weekend casualties, but there were CCTV cameras throughout the building, including one that was fixed on top of a lamp post-high pole that pointed directly at the dock where the police vans arrived. It was alleged by a fellow officer that Major had pulled the 6ft 4 boy out of the van head-first, smashing his face into the concrete, before kneeing him in the head and punching him three times in the face.
Major, it was claimed, then took Rimington to cell number nine. Two cameras were fixed on the charge desk, one camera was directed at the desk of the custody sergeant’s clerk and all the corridors were covered.
Before Major left Rimington in the cell, it was alleged he dropped down to one knee and punched him in the face four or five times for good measure. Major was then supposed to have removed the young man’s handcuffs and left him bleeding on the floor.
On Danny Major’s reckoning, some 13 CCTV cameras would have been operating that night. So how could he have been ‘framed’ as he later claimed?
It seems a freak serial malfunction of technology had taken place that night. The lead investigating officer failed to recover four of six CCTV tapes. Operation Lamp found that, of the two tapes that were recovered, eight hours of footage on each tape was condensed to a mere 90 minutes. According to the review, the abridged version “excluded evidence that undermined the prosecution and would have assisted the defence”.
That was far from the only problem with the original investigation.
Operation Lamp identified five “potentially key” witnesses never interviewed, including two custody officers and the control room operator manning the CCTV cameras.
The investigation did not use words like ‘cover-up’ and ‘whitewash’. Instead, it recorded that the officer who led West Yorkshire Police’s investigation displayed “poor investigative rigour” and “a mindset that could be described as ‘verification bias’”.
The rule on disclosure is simply stated: every unused item held by the police that is considered relevant to an investigation should be reviewed to see if it is capable of undermining the prosecution or assisting the defence case. If it is deemed as such, the evidence must be disclosed to the defence. Failure to disclose is the single most frequent cause of miscarriages of justice, according to the CCRC.
At every stage of the case against Danny Major, problems over disclosure were raised. At the original trial in April 2006 and retrial in October that year at Bradford Crown Court, in a visit to the Court of Appeal in July 2007, and during a review by the CCRC the following year. During cross-examination at trial, it emerged that the investigating officer had not watched the two heavily edited videos of CCTV footage.
The unedited footage was released in the last week of the retrial – but only after the main prosecution witnesses had given evidence. Danny Major and his parents were given one night to view 13 hours of footage. When the case came to the Court of Appeal in 2007, far from being an obstacle to a fair trial, the chaotic approach to disclosure was reckoned to have delivered “a very substantial benefit” to Major.
Thankfully, the Operation Lamp team did watch the videos. In their view, they have revealed “fresh evidence” vital to securing a successful appeal.
The case not only raises serious concerns about the conduct of West Yorkshire police, but also about the continued inaction of the miscarriage of justice watchdog.
I spoke to the Criminal Cases Review Commission this week. It said that Major’s case is no longer under active review and that it is waiting on the outcome of ongoing police inquiries which “may produce information of relevance to any CCRC decision in the case”.
The watchdog looked at Danny Major’s case prior to Operation Lamp, but did not spot anything amiss. The CCRC has special statutory powers to instruct a body independent of the local police force to examine the case. It declined to use those powers.
I am very determined to clear my name. I will never stop.Danny Major
Instead, it was down to Greater Manchester Police to conduct an investigation into the conduct of a neighbouring force, something that only happened because of the perseverance of Major and his parents, former police officer Eric and Bernadette. They persuaded their police and crime commissioner to take on the case and to do the job that the CCRC should have done.
Major’s parents have never doubted that their son has been the victim of a cover-up and remortgaged their home to pay his £30,000 legal fees.
“I can take one corrupt police officer – you expect good and bad anywhere – but not a corrupt police force,” said his mother, Bernadette.
Danny Major continues the fight to clear his name.