THE JUSTICE TRAP: No Forensics, No CCTV – 17 Years in Prison on the Evidence of an “Admitted Liar”
Omar Benguit is still trying to prove his innocence for the murder of a student he is adamant he had nothing to do with.
Omar Benguit has spent almost 17 years in prison for the senseless killing of a Korean student in Bournemouth as she walked back from a nightclub in the early hours of the morning on July 12 2002.
A former problematic heroin user, Benguit was convicted of the murder of Jong-Ok Shin (known as Oki) almost entirely on the evidence of a drug user and prostitute known as ‘BB’.
There was no forensic nor CCTV evidence. The prosecution case was comprised almost entirely of BB’s account, propped up by the circumstantial evidence of 13 individuals addicted to drugs, all well known to the local police. They attested to Benguit’s guilty-looking behaviour immediately after Oki’s death.
“You may have despaired, members of the jury, on occasions during the trial at the sordid picture of the lifestyle that you have seen and heard emerge,” Mrs Justice Heather Hallett told the jury at the second retrial. “I do not know if you expected it to come from an area like Bournemouth.”
All the witnesses frequented the same crack house run by a Liverpudlian woman who, like others, claimed to remember that particular night of the murder because it was the day of the Orange order parades commemorating the Battle of the Boyne.
“Although most of the time I was off my head, I had to keep my wits about me to a certain extent because I was dealing,” she told the court.
The case highlights the lack of accountability in our justice system.Amie Benguit
It was a desperate existence. The woman sold drugs to her own daughter who, in turn, prostituted herself to fund her use. The daughter gave evidence but was described by the judge as “useless” because she was “so out of it”.
Most of the individuals addicted to drugs didn’t know what day of the week it was, let alone recall events that took place six weeks before they had been rounded up by the police.
Then there was BB, in the words of Judge Hallett an “admitted liar”.
She told the jury how she had been driving around that evening when she picked up three fellow drug users. On her account, the men spotted Oki as she walked home, the car pulled over, and then Benguit stabbed the young woman in a handbag snatch gone wrong.
BB claimed she had then been subjected to the most appalling gang rape in the car by the three men and described the attack to the police in unsparing detail. The potential for physical evidence from such an extreme attack was vast. Two cars were searched (BB couldn’t recall which one she had been in on the night), but no DNA evidence turned up.
‘Hard to Understand His Guilt’
The case has a convoluted and bizarre history. One of the three suspects was deported and sent home to Jamaica by the Home Office after BB had been interviewed by the police. He hasn’t been seen since.
In the first trial, the jury failed to reach a verdict on Benguit’s one count of murder and one count of rape.
The third suspect, Nick Gbadamosi, was acquitted on two counts of rape and the jury failed to agree on one count of assisting an offender. A retrial took place in 2004 and, this time, the jury acquitted Benguit of rape but failed to reach a verdict on Benguit’s murder charge. Luckily for Gbadamosi, he was caught on CCTV camera in the early hours of the morning in evidence which undermined BB’s account. The DPP then took the rare step of ordering a second retrial.
Omar Benguit always claimed he was innocent. He is the first to admit that his life was in drug-fuelled free-fall, but he insists that he is no murderer. Shortly after an unsuccessful appeal in 2005, Benguit’s sister Amie approached Barry Loveday, a reader in criminal justice studies at nearby Portsmouth University. He quickly became convinced that a serious miscarriage of justice had taken place.
“I think the whole thing is bizarre,” he told the Daily Echo in 2007. Loveday described Brown’s claim, that she had been subjected to a gang rape, as “entirely fictional – and a fabrication from beginning to end”. That the claims only surfaced when she herself was picked up for shoplifting heightened his suspicions. “For an established drug addict, the ability to recall such detail one-and-a-half months after the incident borders on the incredible,” he said.
More recently, Benguit’s case has been championed by Marika Henneberg, a senior lecturer in criminal justice at Portsmouth University.
“No one who looks at the case thinks Omar did it,” Henneberg told me in 2017. “It is hard to understand how anyone ever could have thought that he was guilty.”
BB was placed on a witness protection scheme for her own safety. In 2008, she sold her story to a women’s magazine for £500 and shortly afterwards effectively outed herself by appearing on ITV’s The Jeremy Kyle Show.
Her time in witness protection had not been a success.
Her dependency on hard drugs spiralled. She was moved from safe house to safe house as dealers discovered her whereabouts. The behaviour of Dorset Police’s star witness became so erratic that they conducted their own investigation ahead of the second trial. BB told the investigation that she felt “completely used, dumped and frightened” by the police.
Jeremy Kyle presented BB to the world as a selfless hero. As the presenter put it: it had taken five years and three trials, including two hung juries, to “nail this piece of scum”.
No one who looks at the case thinks Omar did it.Marika Henneberg
She recounted the events of that night: “I saw Omar plunge a knife into her. She gave this scream. She just dropped down. I think he did it more than once. She dropped down, they got into the car, then they told me to ‘drive, drive, turn the lights off’.”
The problem was that, Brown had told three juries – and maintained throughout a series of interviews – that she had never actually seen the attack. BB seemed incapable of being able to recount her story without contradicting herself.
BB’s unreliability became one of the main grounds for an appeal in 2014. The case was referred back to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. As well as BB’s controversial appearance on a day-time TV show, a possible culprit emerged from the shadows.
The Italian Serial Killer
The Italian serial killer Danilo Restivo moved to Bournemouth in May 2002 shortly before Oki was murdered.
He bludgeoned 48-year old mother-of-two, Heather Barnett, to death in November that year. Barnett lived opposite Restivo which happened to be around the corner from where Oki was killed. In 2011, he was convicted of the murder of Heather Barnett and also an Italian teenager called Elisa Clapps, who had gone missing in 1993.
I wrote about the Omar Benguit case in Guilty Until Proven Innocent.
I met with his sister, Amie, and Gbadamosi in late 2017. She showed me where Oki was attacked and we walked to Restivo’s former home. It took less than two minutes.
I spoke to Amie again this week. “Omar’s in a good place. He’s much better than he was this time last year when the book came out,” she told me.
“That was a horrendous time. He had been in solitary for six months and was in the middle of a dirty protest. The governor wanted to move him to Scotland and that was the only way he felt he could get his view across.”
Omar Benguit always claimed he was innocent. He is the first to admit that his life was in drug-fuelled free-fall, but he insists that he is no murderer.
“I have always said that the people who put Omar in prison will be the ones who get him out. The witnesses are all retracting their evidence.”
According to Amie Benguit, “the biggest problem for us is – and it has always been – the lack of paperwork”.
The family believes that it is almost impossible to fight what they believe to be a wrongful conviction when there is so little documentation.
All crown court trials are recorded digitally and the recordings are deleted after seven years under Ministry of Justice guidelines – this includes the judge’s summing up which is essential for any chance of an appeal. In the Benguit case, only 40 pages of the judge’s summing up remain. Much of the paperwork has been lost as the case has been passed between lawyers over the years.
As Amie Benguit puts it: “The case highlights the lack of accountability in our justice system. A young woman died and an innocent man lost his freedom and yet there is no audit trail.”