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The Post Office Scandal: Why Do Miscarriages of Justice Take So Long to Expose?

Veteran Crime Reporter Duncan Campbell examines the sad history of wrongful prosecutions and the decline of deeply researched investigations

Supporters and family members of Basil Peterkin and Saliah Mehmet outside the Royal Court of Justice in London, 18 January 2024. Photo: Jess Glass/PA Images/Alamy

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 While much has rightly been made of how long it took for the falsely convicted sub-postmasters to have their names cleared, an even older and equally disturbing miscarriage of justice found its way back to the court of appeal this very week on 18 January.

It was in 1977 that two British Rail workers, Saliah Mehmet and Basil Peterkin, were jailed for stealing parcels from a goods depot in south London but it has taken more than four decades for this injustice to be addressed and in the meantime both men have died.

 “We express our regret that so many years have passed before action was taken,” Lord Justice Holroyde told a packed Court 7, which included many of the relatives of the two men. “We cannot turn back the clock but we can and do quash the convictions.” Peterkin died in 1991 and Mehmet, from Covid, in 2021. The court heard that both had been deeply affected by their convictions; when Mehmet was robbed during his later work as a minicab driver he did not bother to report it to the police because he so distrusted them.

 While there are many, many figures now being identified as responsible for the Post Office scandal, the man who was chiefly to blame for the framing of Mehmet and Peterkin, and at least a dozen other young men, has long been known. He is Detective Sergeant Derek Ridgewell of the British Transport police who died at the age of 37 in 1982 in Ford prison in Sussex where he was himself serving a seven year sentence for stealing mailbags and goods worth more than £364,000. 

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Described in court as “dishonest, corrupt and racist” by Henry Blaxland KC, representing the two families, Ridgewell was involved in a series of cases in the early 1970s in which young black men were falsely accused of “mugging” on the London underground and were convicted and jailed. Despite serious concerns about Ridgewell at the time, campaigns on behalf of the jailed men known as ‘the Oval Four’ and ‘the Stockwell Six’ and an exposé on BBC’s Nationwide television programme, he carried on regardless.

 “What might have been expected…is the British Transport Police (BTP) might have conducted a thorough investigation into Detective Sergeant Ridgewell with the end result that he might have been dismissed,” Blaxland told the court. “What happened instead was that he was moved to a different section.” This was the department responsible for investigating mailbag theft where he duly joined up with two others with whom he cheerfully split the profits of stolen goods. Blaxland added that, although one might also have expected that the BTP would then have examined all the disputed cases in which Ridgewell was involved, nothing was done. 

 It was not until 2018 that one of Ridgewell’s victims, Steve Simmons, who had been arrested with two friends for stealing mailbags back in 1975, was cleared. Simmons, a businessman from Dorking in Surrey, and one of Ridgewell’s few white victims, was 62 when his conviction was quashed. At the time of their arrest they had been told by a duty solicitor that if they called the police liars, the judge would jail them for a long time. Despite the solicitor’s warnings, they pleaded not guilty but were all jailed. Simmons’s case was eventually investigated by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) and was the forerunner of a series of appeals by Ridgewell’s victims. 

 After Mehmet and Peterkin’s successful appeal, their relatives and legal team gathered outside the court to speak to the media and curious passers-by. “They were treated as crooks but the only real crooks were the police officers who fitted them up,” said their lawyer, Matt Foot, co-director of Appeal, the legal practice that tackles miscarriages of justice. 

 Also present in court and outside was Winston Trew, one of ‘the Oval Four’ , who were fitted up by Ridgewell in 1972.  Trew has played a key role in exposing Ridgewell and has co-authored, with the former BTP detective superintendent Graham Satchwell, the book, Rot at the Core: The Serious Crimes of a Detective Sergeant, published in 2021, which explains how Ridgewell was able to get away with his fit-ups for so long. “There was enough evidence to sack Ridgewell in 1973,” said Trew, but there had been “systemic failure.” Also outside the court, Janice Peterkin, Basil Peterkin’s daughter, called for legislation that would  mean that the cases of those who had been arrested by jailed officers would automatically be reviewed. 

 The CCRC is now anxious that others who were framed by Ridgewell should contact them. Helen Pitcher, the chair of CCRC, said: “I urge anyone else who believes that they or a loved one, friend or acquaintance was a victim of a miscarriage of justice to contact the CCRC – particularly if DS Derek Ridgewell was involved.”

Police Corruption: A Half-Century Wait for Justice

Duncan Campbell on another victim of a corrupt police sergeant who framed young black men in the 1970s

‘An Appaling Vista’

But why do some disturbing cases take so long before they are finally resolved? Coming shortly is the republication, with new material, of Error of Judgement, the majestic book by the former Labour MP and minister, Chris Mullin, about the wrongful imprisonment of the Birmingham Six. He was mocked at the time for championing the Six’s cause – “Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang” was the Sun’s headline about his efforts – but battled on.

The establishment’s concern about a retrial for the men was epitomised in the notorious speech by Lord Denning in 1980 in which he said: “just consider the course of events if their action were to proceed… If the six men failed it would mean that much time and money and worry would have been expended by many people to no good purpose. If they won, it would mean that the police were guilty of perjury; that they were guilty of violence and threats; that the confessions were involuntary and improperly admitted in evidence; and that the convictions were erroneous… That was such an appalling vista that every sensible person would say, ‘It cannot be right that these actions should go any further’.”

 While that fear of an “appalling vista” was certainly one reason why many cases were shuffled away or forgotten, another was a reluctance to acknowledge evidence of a wrongful conviction.  One case that took more than twenty years before justice was served was a double murder case for which two north Londoners, Reg Dudley and Bobby Maynard, were convicted at the Old Bailey in 1977.

It was not until 2002 that they were cleared and both were rightly awarded major compensation for their wrongful imprisonment. Their case had caused concern years earlier and the man who helped convict them as chief prosecution witness was admitting as early as 1980 that he had fabricated his evidence, yet it was another two decades before he was offered immunity from prosecution for perjury so that he could finally tell the truth.   In the meantime, Maynard and Dudley were shamefully left to linger behind bars. While many were aware of the discrepancies in the case, the papers that could have helped to clear the men were “lost”. The case finally made it to the court of appeal only after it had been reinvestigated by the CCRC, the body that was set up in the 1990s to investigate such claims.

As that impressive television series, Mr Bates vs the Post Office, has now shown and the work in the past of the BBC’s Rough Justice and Channel 4’s Trial and Error programmes often demonstrated, detailed and well-researched publicity on television can also play a major role in overturning miscarriages of justice.

Sadly, both Rough Justice and Trial and Error now no longer exist, victims of a world in which reality TV is cheaper and easier than deeply researched investigations.

So will the Ridgewell saga now become a film and lead to yet more evidence of his villainy? Also in court for the Mehmet/Peterkin appeal was documentary film-maker, Jaimie D’Cruz, who has been researching the Ridgewell cases over the past year. Perhaps television companies now seeing the mighty effect of the ITV’s Mr Bates may start looking again at other serious long-term injustices and giving them the airtime they deserve.

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