Colin Lattimore, 18, Ronnie Leighton, 15, and Ahmed Salih, 14, were held without a lawyer or contact with a parent or guardian and then wrongfully convicted.
Maxwell Confait , known locally as Michelle, was a 26-year-old Seychelles-born homosexual prostitute and cross-dresser who was murdered in London on either 21 or 22 April 1972. The police apprehended an eighteen-year-old man, Colin Lattimore, who had a mental age of approximately 8 years. Lattimore admitted to lighting the fire at Doggett Road with his friend Ronnie Leighton, aged 15, and 14-year-old Ahmet Salih. Leighton and Salih were subsequently also arrested and charged. Later, Lattimore's brother said he had severe learning disabilities and could neither read nor write. The three boys arrested had numerous minor offences to their name and had started a number of small fires in the days leading up to the murder, bringing them to the attention of the police.
Police officers, led by Detective Chief Superintendent Alan Jones, broke and bent every rule imaginable so as to extract a confession from three boys who had no motive whatsoever to murder Maxwell Confait. All three of the boys were questioned without any other adult being present, despite the law stipulating that:
"As far as practicable, children (whether suspected of a crime or not) should only be interviewed in the presence of a parent or guardian, or, in their absence, some person who is not a police officer and is of the same sex as the child."
During the interrogations, all three of the youths ‘admitted’ to starting the fire at the Doggett Road home where Maxwell Confait lived. Lattimore and Leighton also admitted to the murder of Confait. Unfortunately, the confessions were all nonsense and had been written by police officers; evidence later demonstrated that the confessions could not possibly be true.
All three boys had alibi’s up until midnight on 21st April, with numerous witnesses able to testify that the boys were not at the scene of the crime on 21st April. So, Det Chief Supt. Jones simply moved the time of death to the 22nd April at 01:20, when the boys no longer had alibi’s.
At that time, 01:20, a fire broke out in the house where Confait was living. The police alleged that the three boys started the fire after killing Confait. There was no evidence of this apart from confessions obtained by the police. All three boys later alleged that they had been assaulted by the police and denied the truth of the statements that they made.
At the trial it must have been obvious to the prosecution that their case was weak, and that medical evidence pointed to the boys’ probable innocence. The prosecution, greatly aided by the Judge, Mr. Justice Chapman, set about the task of shifting the time of death evidence. The prosecution had to explain the presence of rigor mortis when the police surgeon arrived at 2 a.m. with their case that Colin and Ronnie had killed Confait just one hour earlier.
The prosecutor, Richard Du Cann, introduced a number of spurious medical phenomena in order to hoodwink the jury. There was confusing debate about the nature of rigor mortis, he then introduced the topic of cadaveric spasm before introducing the topic of consumption of alcohol and the effect upon rigor mortis. Matters were not helped when it emerged that neither the police surgeon (Dr. Angus Bain) or the pathologist (Dr. James Cameron) when called to the scene bothered to take a rectal thermometer reading. Thus, they were left guessing as to the time of death. Then, they gave confusing testimony about the supposed temperature in the room where the body was found and misleading opinions about the effect of heat upon rigor mortis. Little wonder, then, that the Jury could make no sense of the evidence given by the police surgeon and the pathologist.
Little attention was paid to the evidence of the firemen who first discovered the body. They said that Confait’s body was cold and stiff, an indication of advanced rigor mortis. Their testimony only became relevant at the eventual appeal hearing. The Judge, who was biased towards conviction throughout the trial, commented in his summing up: “I don’t think I need trouble you very much with regard to their evidence”, when in fact their evidence was crucial.
The boys were convicted of murder, protesting their innocence, and their bewildered families sought help from their local MP, Christopher Price. Surprisingly, after an extensive campaign and several major setbacks, the case was referred by the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, to the Court of Appeal (CoA). This was despite there being no ‘new’ evidence and this is where the current-day CCRC would refuse to take action if a similar case arose, as indeed is the situation in the cases of Robin Garbutt and Clive Freeman.
At the Appeal hearing the medical witnesses were Professor Donald Teare and Professor Keith Simpson. In terms of experience, there is no doubt that Teare and Simpson represent what the CCRC refer to as “bigger and better experts” and the CCRC routinely refuses to admit evidence from anyone who is deemed to be more expert than the original experts. Thus, under the existing CCRC regime, Colin Lattimore, Ronnie Leighton, and Ahmet Salih would more than likely have been refused an appeal.
The purpose of the appeal hearing was to demonstrate that the evidence given by the original experts, Bain and Cameron, was actually correct and Confait had been killed between 8-10 p.m. on Friday 21st April and to establish that the fire began at 1.10 a.m. on Saturday 22 April. Richard Du Cann continued to represent the prosecution and he tried every legal argument possible to thwart the appeal, trying to have evidence from the original trial inadmissible on the grounds that it had already been heard. The appeal judges overruled him.
Professor Teare gave evidence that the heat in the room had no effect upon rigor mortis, that alcohol has no effect either and that cadaveric spasm was irrelevant to the case. Teare gave his opinion that death had not occurred later than 10 p.m. on 21st April.
After Teare gave his evidence, Professor Cameron then told the court that he agreed with Professor Teare and, contrary to what he had been prompted to say three years earlier, neither heat, cadaveric spasm or alcohol had any relevance to the case.
Professor Keith Simpson gave evidence identical to Professor Teare and opined that the death of Confait had occurred no later than 11 p.m. and probably earlier.
Lord Justice Scarman delivered a verdict which exonerated the three boys but also excused all of the false testimony. There were no repercussions for the original experts, Bain and Cameron. The police officers who constructed the false statements by the boys got off scot-free. Detective Chief Superintendent Alan Jones was promoted to Commander.
The CCRC should take note that “bigger and better” experts were able to correct this miscarriage of justice. The cases of Robin Garbutt and Clive Freeman are crying out for the application of common sense and for better qualified experts to be given an opportunity to comment on crucial forensic issues.
By Bill Robertson
Bill Robertson has researched alleged miscarriages of justice for around 20 years and advised on several cases, including the most recent application to the CCRC by Jeremy Bamber.
Please let us know if you think that there is a mistake in this article, explaining what you think is wrong and why. We will correct any errors as soon as possible.