Last May the journalist and author Bob Woffinden died of mesothelioma. He will be remembered as a formidable campaigner against miscarriages of justice.
While judge after judge rejected the legal attempts of the Birmingham 6 and the Guildford 4 to obtain justice – per Lord Denning MR“appalling vista …;” per Lord Lane LCJ “the longer this case has gone on the more convinced this court has become that the verdict of the jury was correct ….” – Woffinden and other journalists such as Ludovic Kennedy and Paul Foot, (and of course lawyers like Gareth Pierce, too) doggedly chipped away, until eventually the cases were revealed for what he had believed them to be from an early stage; grotesque miscarriages of justice, brought about by a combination of systemic disclosure failures, bungling by expert witnesses, police malpractice, prejudiced jurors and judicial complacency. His 1987 book on the cases, Miscarriages of Justice, remains a classic.
In his final 2016 book, The Nicholas Cases, Woffinden turned his attention to more contemporary possible miscarriages of justice. One of these was the 2001 conviction of Jonathan King on charges of historic abuse of boys. He made a compelling case that the original trial had been unfair and produced evidence that suggested King had a strong alibi for one of the offences – he was in America at the time, as attested by several witnesses and documents discovered after the trial. Another of Woffinden’s revelations was that the main complainant in the case against King had, reportedly, after the trial, admitted lying against King for money: he had also apparently sold his story for £45,000 to one newspaper and £5,000 to another.
There was, in fact, a second trial, but that ended in King’s acquittal on all charges.
Before going to the police many of the complainants against King had first contacted the publicist Max Clifford, who was in 2005 able to give the Guardian the benefit of his unique insights into paedophilia:
“In my experience paedophiles always try to justify themselves and never show remorse. I spent a great deal of time with his victims. They all came to me, I never went looking. It was a very emotional experience.”
Through the good offices of Mr Clifford stories about King were sold to the media and more complainants then “came forward.”
As well as an emotional experience the long periods of time that Mr Clifford spent with the complainants also proved profitable for Mr Clifford, at least in the short term. In the longer term, though, it did not turn out well for him. After King’s release from prison he learnt about Clifford’s taste for underage girls through a mutual friend, and encouraged one of his victims to complain to the very same Surrey Police force that had arrested him, neatly turning the tables on the PR Svengali, and bringing about his downfall.
Earlier this year King was charged with more historic sex offences against teenage boys and faced yet another trial. After one false start and prolonged legal argument largely concentrating on disclosure issues, the trial at Southwark Crown Court finally collapsed last week, with the judge describing the approach of Surrey Police as “lamentable.”
She had, she said, been misled “on several critical occasions.” It turned out the Magistrates Court had also been misled – not deliberately but with “a deplorable lack of seriousness and rigour” – in an application for a search warrant. Disclosure had been a mess. Documents capable of undermining the prosecution case or supporting Mr King’s defence were not disclosed, or were “inadequately” described on schedules, or had simply disappeared.
It also emerged that the Surrey Police had gone to the extraordinary lengths of undertaking a covert surveillance operation against King in 2015. Why this was considered an appropriate use of resources in a case alleging historic abuse was not explained in the judgment, but disappointingly from the point of view of the police it had revealed nothing to suggest that he had done anything wrong. Obviously this was something which was potentially helpful to Mr King’s defence, but the fact of the surveillance was not even revealed until a late stage, and then only after an application had been made to withhold disclosure on the basis of Public Interest Immunity.
Summarising her reasons for stopping the case, HHJ Deborah Taylor said:
“… the integrity of the criminal justice system and processes have been undermined publicly in a fundamental way by the disclosure failures and persistent misleading of the court.”
Judicial condemnation does not often come more scathing than that.
So far, one might think, so appalling; here is yet another case of a prosecution being brought without proper attention being given to disclosure issues. That is true, but the implications of the case potentially go rather further.
One of the complainants in the case – he cannot, of course, be named but we can call him Complainant A – was a man whose statement had originally been taken in 2000 by a police officer in the Surrey Police. When this blog was originally posted it was unclear whether identification of the police officer had been authorised by the judge; it is now clear that his name can be reported. It is Mark Williams-Thomas, now a journalist and fairly well-known TV presenter. That explains the references to “Mr X” in the comments section.
Complainant A’s evidence – seemingly the very first witness ever to make a statement about King – did not in the end form part of the original trials, and a count relating to it was “left on the file,” where it remained until 2018. At that point the prosecution applied to resurrect it, in order to join it to the new case. They told the court that they had made full disclosure, and on that basis the judge allowed counts based on A’s case to be joined to the new trial.
As Judge Taylor put it:
“I make clear that had full disclosure regarding [A], and the involvement of Williams-Thomas been made known, those counts would not have been added to the Indictment.”
A jury was thus empanelled and earlier this summer the trial began.
But the Prosecution – in particular the Police – had not made full disclosure at all.
The defence continued to press for more, including of material relating to the by now ex-police officer, Mr Williams-Thomas. It was provided, late and piecemeal, but it was enough, eventually, to undermine A’s evidence so much that the Crown dropped the allegations which depended upon his evidence. The judge explained that
“… it was the Crown’s view that due to the evidence which had emerged late it could no longer maintain the position that [A’s] statement was reliable evidence.”
The result was that the jury was discharged, and the Crown decided to try again, this time without A’s evidence.
A significant amount of this “evidence which had emerged late” related to the involvement of the ex-police officer, Mr Williams-Thomas. In particular:
For his part, Mr King has already applied to the Criminal Cases Review Commission to review his original convictions, and I understand that as a result of the material revealed about Mr Williams-Thomas and the Surrey Police during this collapsed trial, the CCRC will shortly be receiving another thick bundle of material.
An irony that will not have escaped the Chief Constable of Surrey as he considers what his own inquiry should look into, and perhaps his own position, is the judge’s finding that this disastrous attempt to prosecute Mr King was driven “not … by complainants’ allegations, but by concerns about reputational damage to Surrey Police in the wake of the Savile case ….” Bringing a case because of concerns about reputational damage to a police force seems an extraordinary thing to do, but if that was the reason why it was thought fit to place Mr King under covert surveillance and then to prosecute him it has proved spectacularly unsuccessful.
It is to be hoped that the independent inquiry promised by the Surrey Police – whether it is a judge led inquiry or a police led criminal investigation – will get to the bottom of what has gone wrong. Only then will the reputation of Surrey Police begin to recover.
Bob Woffinden’s intuition proved to be right about the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four. It now seems more than ever that he was also right to raise the most searching questions about the convictions of Jonathan King.