Law: Half a life in jail for killing `he did not commit'

New appeal in case regarded as one of worst miscarriages of justice
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John Roberts has just spent 15 years in prison after he "confessed" to detectives to a murder which he says he did not commit. As his case returns to the Court of Appeal, he spoke to Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, who examines the background of a potentially tragic miscarriage of justice.

The Roberts case has had almost no publicity, has not been taken up by any celebrity campaigners or been the subject of television programmes and yet seems likely to go down as one of the worst miscarriages of justice from the period before the Police and Criminal Evidence Act regulated the work of detectives.

And it bears many of the hallmarks of other miscarriages which have made headlines in the Court of Appeal: a vulnerable and suggestible suspect, detectives determined to extract confessions, key evidence not brought before the courts and a legal system that appears to have failed to get to the truth of the case.

On the 15 March 1982 the badly decomposed body of a man was discovered in a makeshift grave in an orchard at Barleycorn Farm in Shropshire. The man, Daniel Sands, 41, who had been shot in the head, had been missing for 18 months.

Three days later, John Roberts, then 19, was arrested by West Mercia police at his home in Shrewsbury and taken to the local station. Within hours, he had admitted the murder but now says he spent 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.

After being arrested, Roberts was subjected to a five-hour interview with detectives but without a solicitor. Although he initially denied the murder, he ended up admitting the killing. After his interrogator had said: "Before we go any further I am going to ask you again who actually pulled the trigger of the shotgun that killed Sands?" Roberts said he did.

Eleven months later, after a nine-day trial, Roberts and another man, Richard Evans, then 23, were found guilty of murder. Roberts, who was 17 at the time of the offences, was detained during Her Majesty's pleasure, and Evans was given life. The confession was the main evidence against Roberts.

Last August he was released after serving more than 15 years in jail - he could have come out earlier but he has always refused to admit his guilt since the conviction. This week his lawyers will argue in the Court of Appeal that his conviction is unsafe and the trial was unfair.

Far from being a ruthless killer, they will argue that Roberts was a vulnerable teenager prone to confessing to almost anything, who became the fall guy. Furthermore, a key suspect was never brought to court.

According to Mr Roberts, he had been doing some work at Sands' home in the village of Grinshill, 10 miles from Shrewsbury, along with Richard Evans. He recalled arriving at the house one morning. "[Evans] said: `By the way, Danny's dead in the kitchen.' I laughed as I thought it was a joke.

"He opened the door and there was a big spray of blood up the wall and a shotgun in the corner. There was a big pool of blood around his head."

He said that Evans then told him to help bury the body, which he did because he was frightened. He later returned to Shrewsbury where he said he was too afraid to say anything to the police or his family.

The body was not discovered for another year-and-a-half when Sands' father was digging in the garden. Evans was arrested after he was discovered to have sold some of Sands' property.

During a series of interviews, in which he told a string of lies, he named Roberts as the murderer and said he had only helped bury the body.

Armed with this information the police pressed on with their interrogation of Roberts.

As part of the appeal, new tests will show that Roberts was particularly vulnerable and has a marked tendency to be compliant with people in authority and is suggestible.

A potentially key witness, and suspect, was not allowed to give evidence at the trial. Police questioned William Evans, the brother of Richard, after it was alleged that he had been living with Sands and had a row with him two weeks before his death. It was also claimed that William Evans had bragged about carrying out the murder to several witnesses, however none of this could be tested in court because he was not called to give evidence.

Furthermore, new forensic evidence shows that Sands was shot in the right temple, not the back of the head as Roberts had claimed in his confession.