THE JUSTICE TRAP: ‘Our courts will bend over backwards to uphold a conviction which is obviously unsafe’
Jon Robins explores why Tony Stock spent more than 40 years fighting to clear his name for an armed robbery a supergrass admitted he had nothing to do with.
The one time I met Tony Stock, he was 72 years old and spending his pension on a private investigator.
He had been trying to clear his name of an armed robbery in 1970, for a long time already. In fact, his 43-year fight for justice saw his case returning to the Court of Appeal four times and making it once to the European Court of Human Rights.
Stock protested his innocence from day one, insisting that he had been ‘fitted up’ by bent police officers.
In prison, there were rooftop protests and a devastating 100-day hunger strike. He was always persuasive. The secretary of law and human rights group JUSTICE, Tom Sargant, was an early convert to the cause and his concerns about the safety of the conviction led to a Sunday Times investigation in 1972.
Everybody who has looked at this case in any detail agrees his innocence.Glyn Maddocks, Tony Stock’s solicitor
When I met Stock, it was to discuss the possibility of writing a book about his case. Sadly, he died the year after.
I first spoke to him in 2008, on the eve of his last trip to the Court of Appeal.
‘I would have been the first miscarriage of justice,’ he told me. ‘There was this spate of cases: the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and Cardiff Three. Each one was another nail in my coffin.’
Of course, Tony Stock wasn’t the first miscarriage of justice. His comment was a bitter reflection that his fight for justice predated that run of scandals that woke the British public out of its complacency about the infallibility of our justice system and led to major reforms which were supposed to fix the system.
The Chainsaw Gang
That Tony Stock had to spend more than four decades of his life trying to overturn his conviction illustrates the extreme reluctance of the justice system to get to grips with its own failings.
One of the four men who committed the robbery in Leeds confessed to the police in April 1979. An East End gangster Samuel Benfield turned supergrass and sang like the proverbial bird. ‘Scotch Sammy’, as he was known, was a leading light in the Chainsaw Gang, so called because of its pioneering approach to new style Securicor vans which started moving money up and down the country in the mid-1970s. It had previously been known as the ‘Thursday Gang’, on account of its predilection for knocking-off payrolls (traditionally paid out on a Thursday). The gang never lacked ambition. When it was arrested after a decade-long crime spree, it was planning to rob the QE2.
Benefield went on to testify in the cases of some 10 defendants in connection with 50 robberies. Neither the police nor the courts had any problem with his evidence when it suited them. On the strength of his testimony, an entire gang was put behind bars.
The police interviewed the career criminal about the Leeds job three times in 1979. He recalled the robbery in plentiful detail. He made it perfectly clear that Tony Stock had nothing to do with it. The Chainsaw Gang was a contemporary of the Krays and Richardsons when Stock was selling vending machines in the north-east. The two worlds never met.
In 1979 Tony Stock was widely reported as being the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice. It was front-page news. ‘Squealer clears Identikit victim,’ was the headline in the Daily Mail. ITV’s flagship investigative programme World in Action even ran a one-off about his wrongful conviction.
His imprisonment turned Stock’s life upside down.
His wife and the mother of his four children divorced him. His own mother, driven half-mad by the strange fate that befell her son, died shortly after he left prison.
On the World in Action programme, he said: ‘There’s no way I can see that anyone could be compensated for six years stuck, to be blunt, in a hellhole… Six years in torment. I don’t think there’s a price they can put on it.’
The wheels of justice move slowly if they move at all.
It took 17 years for Tony Stock’s case to reach the Court of Appeal in 1996 – more than a quarter of a century after the robbery. The star witness at the appeal was the supergrass.
Samuel Benefield arrived at the rear entrance of the Royal Courts of Justice fearful of reprisals and heavily disguised wearing a headscarf, fake beard and sunglasses. ‘I want to be here like I want a hole in my head,’ he told the court. Once again, he recalled how he and his gang did the Leeds robbery and confirmed that he hadn’t a clue who Tony Stock was.
But, there was one problem.
There’s no way I can see that anyone could be compensated for six years stuck, to be blunt, in a hellhole… Six years in torment. I don’t think there’s a price they can put on it.Tony Stock
The court didn’t accept his evidence. Instead, Mr Justice Igor Judge, later Lord Chief Justice Judge, reasoned that the supergrass’s account of the gang’s return journey was ‘outside any possible contemplation’, so utterly illogical as to torpedo his credibility. That appeared to be that.
Although, it wasn’t.
The following year the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) opened for business as a result of a royal commission announced on the day the Birmingham Six left prison. The miscarriage of justice watchdog used its new statutory powers to get hold of a 1979 police report, never previously released, into the alleged perjury of the two investigating police officers who Tony Stock believed framed him.
Stock’s lawyers had tried to get hold of that report ahead of the 1996 appeal, but the Crown Prosecution Service blocked this citing ‘public interest immunity’, so the case went before the Court of Appeal, which ruled that its contents were ‘either not relevant or not worth fighting for’.
The police had had no problems with Samuel Benefield’s evidence. In fact, they accepted that it ‘inevitably casts doubt’ on the safety of Stock’s conviction.
The watchdog sent the case back to the Court of Appeal in 2004.
The appeal judges acknowledged that the court in 1996 was wrong to dismiss Benefield’s description of a getaway route as not credible. Mr Justice Judge had misread the map. Not only did the Court of Appeal fail to apologise for its own error, it didn’t allow Benefield’s evidence back in. For an appeal to be successful, the court has to be presented with new evidence. The fact that Benefield’s evidence had been before the court before, meant that it was not ‘new’. The CCRC knew that the Appeal judges were unlikely to revisit the supergrass’s testimony no matter how compelling. But, the CCRC was confident that it had uncovered further new evidence that fatally undermined the conviction.
The prosecution case against Tony Stock was always weak.
There was just a single witness who made an identification on the basis of a two-to-three second sighting on a dark, wet night. The CCRC now had evidence that this witness had most likely been shown a photograph of Stock prior to their identification of him.
To cut a long and shameful story short, the Court of Appeal rejected Stock’s case in 2004 (whilst acknowledging its error in 1996) and following a second CCRC referral in 2008.
I wrote a book about the case, ‘The First Miscarriage of Justice‘, with the support of Tony Stock’s long-term solicitor, Glyn Maddocks, and the CCRC’s former head of investigations, Ralph Barrington.
Tony Stock’s 43-year fight for justice saw his case returning to the Court of Appeal four times and making it once to the European Court of Human Rights.
Barrington, a former head of Essex CID and a man not given to overstating his case, described the Tony Stock saga as ‘a self-evident miscarriage of justice’.
I spoke to Glyn Maddock this week, who is now an adviser to the new all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice.
‘We are currently waiting on the decision by the CCRC to refer the case back to the Court of Appeal for an historic third time,’ he said.
‘As it stands, what happened to Tony Stock is a clear injustice and a striking example of how our courts will bend over backwards to uphold a conviction which is quite obviously unsafe. Everybody who has looked at this case in any detail agrees his innocence with the exception of a small handful people.
‘It was Tony’s tragedy that those people all happened to sit on the Court of Appeal.’