Sun 5 December 2021

Duncan Campbell looks back over the lives ruined by just one corrupt police officer and what the case reveals about Britain’s failing criminal justice system

“There isn’t a word in the English language that expresses what I feel right now,” said Cleveland Davidson as he stood triumphantly outside the Royal Courts of Justice on Tuesday after having his 1972 conviction for attempted robbery overturned by the court of appeal after nearly fifty years. 

Vindicated, exonerated, justified are perhaps just a few of the possibilities but Davidson clearly felt that none quite captured what it felt like to have the burden of a half a century lifted from his shoulders and described in court as “a shocking set of circumstances.” 

My father, who didn’t believe the police would lie, said he would send me home to Jamaica! It ruined my life.

Cleveland Davidson

Davidson was one of the ‘Stockwell Six’, a group of young black men arrested on the underground by the British Transport Police (BTP) and alleged to have tried to rob an undercover detective sergeant called Derek Ridgewell. Along with Paul Green and Courtney Harriott, whose convictions were also overturned, he was jailed after being convicted at the Old Bailey.

Coming so soon after the independent panel’s report on the Metropolitan police’s handling of the 1987 murder of Daniel Morgan, the appeal court’s judgement was another reminder of how long it can take for systematic corruption within the police – and known about within the Home Office – to be brought finally to light.  

At the trial of the six, Ridgewell had told the court that he had been accosted by Harriott and the others on a journey between Stockwell and the Oval tube stations and Harriott had told him “give me some bread, man” and produced a long knife. Ridgewell claimed that he drew his truncheon and knocked the knife away as other undercover officers from adjoining compartments magically arrived. He claimed that Harriott had shouted “fuzz!”  

“My parents, who were Christian and who are dead now, never believed me,” said Davidson outside the court after being cleared. “My father, who didn’t believe the police would lie, said he would send me home to Jamaica! It ruined my life. You don’t get a meaningful job with a conviction like that and I was sacked from my engineering job when they found out I hadn’t told them about it.” 

Paul Green’s parents did believe in his innocence but it had a profound effect on his life, too. “It took me 25 years before I travelled on a train again. I was so afraid of the police. And I never told any of my kids – how can you tell them you’re innocent when you don’t have anything to prove it? It was bloody traumatic.” Of the claims that they had shouted “fuzz” and “give me some bread”, Green laughed: “we never used those terms!” 

This was the third major case involving Ridgewell to go to appeal. The first case, the 1976 conviction of Stephen Simmons for mailbag theft, was quashed in 2018. Four other men, Winston Trew, Omar Boucher, Sterling Christie and George Griffiths – the so-called ‘Oval Four’ – all had their 1972 convictions quashed the following year.

Ridgewell died in jail in 1982 at the age of 37 after being convicted in 1980 of conspiring to steal mailbags. During the brief hearing, Judy Khan QC for the appellants, told Sir Julian Flaux, the Chancellor of the High Court, sitting with Mr Justice Linden and Mr Justice Wall, that there had been a number of similar cases also involving false admissions and a lack of any independent witnesses.

Andrew Johnson, for the Crown Prosecution Service, did not oppose the appeal and acknowledged that there had been a “shocking set of circumstances.” Sir Julian praised the “excellent investigation” carried out by the Criminal Cases Review Commission which led to the latest appeal and added that “it is most unfortunate that this had taken nearly fifty years.”

After the case, the CCRC chairwoman Helen Pitcher said: “we are delighted that these three men have, quite rightly, had their appeals quashed…Our attention now turns to the two men we have been trying to reach for some time now who were also wrongly accused many years ago.” (The sixth accused was acquitted at the time after it emerged that he could not read the statement he was alleged to have signed.) 

Solicitor Jenny Wiltshire, of Hickman & Rose, who represented the men, was unequivocal in her criticism of the time it had taken for the conviction to be overturned: “these men’s entire adult lives have been blighted by false allegations made by a corrupt police officer known to have been dishonest for decades.

Both the British Transport Police and the Home Office were warned about Ridgewell’s lies in 1973. Yet neither organisation did anything except move him to a different police unit. Even when Ridgewell was convicted of theft in 1980 they did not look again at the many clearly unsafe criminal convictions which had relied on his witness testimony. It is only now, almost half a century on, that the British Transport Police has indicated that it will review Ridgewell’s activities.

For many of Ridgewell’s innocent victims and their families, it is far too little, far too late.” The BTP deputy chief constable, Adrian Hanstock, said: “it is wholly regrettable that the criminal actions of a discredited former officer of this force over four decades ago led to these unsound prosecutions. I apologise unreservedly for the distress, anxiety and impact this will have undoubtedly caused those who were wrongly convicted. We understand that nothing can ever make up for the period of time that they spent in custody or the longer-term effect it may have had on them.”

The BTP says that they have now examined cases in which Ridgewell was the principal officer but have not identified “any additional matters that we feel should be referred for external review.”  

Also in court was Winston Trew of the ‘Oval Four’, whose research into his own wrongful conviction played a major part in reopening all the cases.

“Fantastic news,” was his response to the successful appeal. Trew became a lecturer in social studies at South Bank University before suffering a stroke in 2003 and it was while recovering that he decided to investigate his case using the National Archives and the Freedom of Information Act and uncovered the levels of corruption in which Ridgewell had been involved.  

Earlier this year, Rot at the Core, an in-depth investigation into Ridgewell by Trew and the former BTP detective superintendent, Graham Satchwell, who investigated corruption in his own force, was published.  It explains how Ridgewell fitted up countless people while he was himself involved in stealing more than £1million in goods that the police had access to, which he sold on via a south London criminal family. The proceeds of his crimes were salted away in five bank accounts, including one in Zurich.

Asked by the governor of Ford prison why he had embarked on such a corrupt path, Ridgewell responded: “I just went bent.” 

The criminal justice system is now in a state of collapse, with currently 57,000 cases waiting to be heard in crown courts. The controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will effectively criminalise the way of life of many Gypsy and Traveller families and facilitate the jailing of countless demonstrators, can only add to the numbers of those wrongly convicted and jailed. How long will the next victims of miscarriages of justice have to wait for their appeals to be heard?


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