FOCUS: IN THE FACE OF PREJUDICE

Winston Silcott, cleared of one murder, in prison for another, is appealing his conviction. His friends have a battle on their hands too

FROM THE day they met at junior school and became best friends, Winston Silcott and Delroy Lindo had a lot in common. Young, militant and black, they grew up fighting the same political battles, usually against the police; in happier moments, they ran a mobile disco. Nowadays, Silcott inhabits a prison cell, and Lindo a comfortable suburban house. But after 32 years of friendship, their destinies remain entwined.

Silcott, who was cleared seven years ago by the Court of Appeal of murdering PC Keith Blakelock in the 1985 riot at Broadwater Farm in north London, is still serving a life sentence at Maidstone prison for another, earlier killing: the stabbing of a young boxer, Anthony Smith. This week, the Criminal Cases Commission, the quango charged with investigating alleged miscarriages of justice, is expected to decide whether a dossier of new evidence about the Smith murder merits a fresh appeal. It is probably Silcott's last chance of freedom: if the commission finds against him, he expects to stay inside for many years.

Lindo is also facing something of a crisis. Last week, at the end of two years in which he has found himself arrested six times, he wrote to Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and to Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, claiming that the police are making his life and that of his wife intolerable.

Delroy, 39, and Sonia, 36, a housing executive who used to work for Dame Shirley Williams in the SDP, have no convictions. Last week Superintendent Ron Hope, the officer in charge of Hornsey, their local police division, said there was "no suggestion" that they were involved in criminal activity; they were "not a target in relation to crime".

For whatever reason, the Lindos have been involved in a number of incidents with the police: an officer stopped them as they got out of their BMW, which was legally parked, and followed them into their children's school, the start of a violent incident which ended with them both being dragged in handcuffs into a police van. A few months later officers on their way to an emergency stopped to question Delroy about his driving: this time, after the arrival of two further squad cars and a police van, he was struck five times by a policeman's baton as he lay on the pavement outside his home. Ten days ago another altercation over his driving - the details of which are sub judice - led to another police response, prompting his neighbours to make their own complaint to the commissioner, claiming that the force used to arrest him was wildly disproportionate.

Lindo has been to court four times. Most of the counts against him have been public order charges, relating to his alleged behaviour when he was stopped and arrested. In every case tried so far he has been acquitted.

Supt Hope, who was promoted last month to become the Met's only black divisional commander, insists there is "no campaign" against the Lindos. Sonia, however, is off work because of stress, while the couple's two younger children are missing school: they are so traumatised, she says, that they are stay- ing with her mother in America, in the hope of some respite.

The Lindos are convinced they are being harassed. And they think they may know why.

Without Delroy Lindo, most of the dossier now being weighed by the Criminal Cases Commission would not exist. Soon after the dossier was submitted at the end of 1995 the police were asked to make further inquiries into its contents. They have known since then the name of the amateur detective who traced the people who saw what happened 14 years ago when Anthony Smith was stabbed: Delroy Lindo.

"A lot of police officers still believe Winston killed PC Blakelock, that his appeal was just a technicality," Lindo says. "They cannot bear to think that if he wins an appeal against his second conviction, he would finally be free."

WINSTON SILCOTT wears another piece of evidence across the bridge of his nose: a thin, fading scar, the residue, he says, of a knife wielded by Anthony Smith. He admits that he killed him. But he did so, he claims, in self-defence, acting in mortal fear, facing Smith and two of his cronies, against the background of a vendetta. Nine new witnesses, who never gave evidence at his trial, now support his story.

They say that Smith was the leader of a criminal gang, the Yankee Posse, which was terrorising black north London. In the days before his death, Smith had picked a fight with one of Silcott's friends from Broadwater Farm: after Silcott intervened, the witnesses say, Smith pledged he would end up dead.

It was nearly Christmas, 1984. Silcott was touring the area, giving out cards at parties to drum up business for the sound system he ran with Delroy Lindo, the Galaxy Soul Shuffle. The evening was passing uneventfully. Then, at 177 Mare Street, Hackney, he ran into Smith. Terrified, Silcott says, he borrowed a knife. He tried to slip out without being noticed. He failed. And then, say several witnesses, Smith attacked him with a knife. Smith stabbed first.

In sworn statements, this is what the witnesses allege. Their evidence has never been tested by cross-examination, because it has never been heard in court. But in any "ordinary" murder, says Silcott's solicitor, Adrian Clarke, a weight of new testimony such as this would be sufficient to ensure a fresh hearing in the Court of Appeal. There, the judges might order a retrial; they could decide that the case ought to have ranked as manslaughter; they could quash the conviction altogether, or leave it undisturbed. This, however, is no ordinary case.

"I am under no illusions," Clarke says. He believes it is not enough to convince the commission that doubts exist about the murder of Anthony Smith; he feels he must first refight an old battle and convince the commission that, despite the prejudice which still exists, Silcott really did not kill PC Blakelock.

It seems extraordinary that this has to be done. Silcott's Blakelock conviction was quashed on the basis of scientific tests which showed that his confession, the only evidence against him, was fabricated by the police - tests which the Appeal judges found so convincing that they described Silcott and his co-defendants as "victims of perjury". Yet the belief in his guilt persists.

It received a boost when Silcott's two police interrogators successfully fought charges of perverting the course of justice at the Old Bailey in 1994. Their defence lawyers argued that Silcott had been guilty, and that to convict the officers would thus be wrong. They backed their claim by reading excerpts from 14 statements by new "witnesses" to the Blakelock murder, adding that their authors had been asked to give evidence and had refused "through fear".

It made good courtroom drama. It was also highly misleading: the most incriminating statements had been heard long before - and dismissed by the Blakelock murder trial judge in 1987. The worst came from a boy of 13, who had been detained illegally for three days, without access to his parents, wearing only underpants and a blanket, flecked with his own vomit. His words, the murder trial judge said, "screamed fantasy", while later the boy received pounds 30,000 damages from the police. He had no idea his statement was to be recycled.

It is understood that among the documents being considered by the commission is an account of a completely new witness to the Blakelock murder, who is emphatic that Silcott played no part. Yet the commission appears to be agonising: it has delayed its ruling many times. Like Delroy Lindo, Adrian Clarke is learning that supporting Winston Silcott is a lonely, unpopular task.

PERHAPS LINDO has merely been unlucky. Perhaps, as a black man facing white police officers, he has failed what police canteen culture terms "the attitude test", being prone to question officers' authority when compliance, however galling, might have been the wiser course. Perhaps the whole business is an unfortunate coincidence.

Supt Hope is adamant that the Lindos' recent experience of policing has nothing to do with Silcott. "Until you mentioned it, I was unaware of their connection," he says. "I've discussed this matter with colleagues, and none of them has mentioned it either."

Meanwhile, Lindo remains determined to help his friend. "I've stuck by him all these years because I've always been convinced of his innocence. All I've done is my duty."

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