Celebrate the Success of the 'Oval Four' – But Don't Forget the Many Others Trapped in a Broken System
Winston Trew and his wife Hyacinth outside the Royal Courts of Justice
The quashing of the convictions of the ‘Oval Four’ by the Court of Appeal shows our under-funded and chaotic criminal justice system working. Unfortunately this is an exception not the rule, reports Jon Robins.
The wheels of justice, as we all know, turn slowly if indeed they turn at all. Yesterday we learned that three black men from south London jailed for stealing handbags on the London Underground in 1972 had finally cleared their names.
Winston Trew, Sterling Christie and George Griffiths had their convictions quashed in the Court of Appeal. No one has been able to track down the fourth co-defendant. It is thought that Constantine Boucher fled the UK in the 1970s. Who could blame him?
The so-called ‘Oval Four’ were framed by a racist and corrupt police officer.
Detective Sergeant Ridgewell would typically approach young black men on the tube, falsely accuse them of a mugging and then ‘verbal’ them – in other words, attribute incriminating fictitious remarks to them.
Earlier this year, Winston Trew attended the launch of The Justice Gap’s Proof magazine, in partnership with Byline Times, at which the journalist Duncan Campbell, Patrick Maguire of the ‘Maguire Seven’ – who was just 14 years old when was wrongly convicted – and I discussed miscarriages of justice. At the event, Winston Trew spoke to Maguire, who remains deeply traumatised by the nightmare which began in 1974. “He said the devastating experience was with him all the time,” Trew later told me. “His consciousness mirrors my consciousness. You can’t forget it.”
Winston Trew, 69, had a stroke in 2003 and, as part of his rehabilitation, began to revisit the events that overshadowed his life. “I didn’t know where I was or even who I was,” he said. “When my wife spoke to me, I kept referring to the hospital as ‘prison’. My memory has been wiped out, my consciousness shattered but I still remembered prison.”
It is a shameful reflection on our justice system that it has taken close to half a century to right an obvious wrong. That it was corrected is down to the hard work of the miscarriage of justice watchdog, the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC).
“It is a good example of what we do,” said the group’s chair Helen Pitcher. She explained that the CCRC had “sought out these cases” following its success before the appeal judges with another victim of Ridgewell, Stephen Simmons. When I spoke to Trew he paid tribute to the watchdog’s diligence.
It is right that the CCRC takes credit for yesterday’s success. It’s no small achievement to overturn a conviction in our Court of Appeal. However, people should understand how vanishingly rare such a result is.
If you are wrongly convicted of a crime in this country, the only way to clear your name is through the Birmingham-based CCRC. It only managed to refer 13 cases to the appeal court last year and the group’s referrals crashed three years ago. Our appeals system has ground to a shuddering halt.
What’s going on? The problems at the CCRC are the result of more than a decade of crippling under-funding and reforms foist on the body by the Ministry of Justice against the wishes of its own commissioners. But, that’s not the full story – we also have an increasingly conservative Court of Appeal.
The media love nothing more then a good old-fashioned miscarriage of justice story and the Oval Four, with its irresistible plot line of ‘bent coppers fitting up innocents’, has it all. Journalists seem less interested in the complex causes of the failings of the appeals system. I can’t identify a single report in the past three years in our newspapers about why so few cases are ending at the Court of Appeal.
Before the CCRC was set up in 1997, there were clearly identifiable types of wrongful conviction: cases concerning police corruption such as the Oval Four, unreliable identifications such as in the case of Tony Stock and, of course, Irish ‘terrorism’ cases such as the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Maguire Seven.
I’ve identified new categories of wrongful convictions: joint enterprise convictions, especially in the context of gangs or knife crime; trials involving the interpretation of statistical evidence; and historic sexual abuse cases. That only one joint enterprise conviction has been overturned since the Supreme Court acknowledged that the law had “taken a wrong turn” in this area in 2016 is shocking.
If it’s reassuring that the fate that befell Winston Trew and his three friends could not happen now because the police have had to record interviews ever since the PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984) reforms, it really shouldn’t be.
The reality is that systems of criminal justice are always going to make mistakes and we should not be surprised that one as chronically underfunded and as chaotic as ours does.
So let’s celebrate the belated success of the Oval Four, but also spare a thought for those innocent people trapped in a broken system.