An injustice that won't go away

A 1988 murder led to the conviction of three innocent men. Now 'Panorama' looks again at the role of the police

On St Valentine's Day 1988 Lynette White, a Cardiff prostitute, was murdered by one of her clients, Jeffrey Gafoor, in a row over sex and money. He had repeatedly stabbed and almost decapitated her. The crime led to one of the biggest on-going scandals in British criminal history – "the largest scale of injustice in a single case", according to the eminent QC Lord Carlile. Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the powerful home affairs committee, says simply: "If this case had been written as a work of fiction, people would not believe it."

Two investigations, one by the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and one by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) into the judicial debacles that have continued to haunt the case for close on a quarter of a century, are due to conclude early next month.

The murder was investigated by the South Wales Police CID. Blood stains were found on the dead girl's clothing, and evidence pointed clearly to a single white male assailant. There were no outstanding complexities to the case beyond the inevitable problem of finding the killer, probably a random punter in Butetown, Cardiff's then seedy docklands area.

The CID team did everything by the book, including a BBC Crimewatch appeal for a lone white man.

Several dockland "characters" – prostitutes, pimps, small-time criminals, gays and drifters – were interviewed, but none could identify the killer. However, the detectives did come up with a prime suspect, dubbed Mr X. But DNA tests ruled him out and eight months after the murder, the team had got nowhere.

Then, on 19 October, Violet Perriam, a secretary at the local yacht club – a place where detectives who worked out of Butetown police station used to drink – told detectives she suddenly remembered having seen four black people outside the gloomy flat where Lynette had been murdered. A month later, she gave two names to detectives.

Within days, the direction of the investigation had been turned on its head. Gone was the single white male and, in his place, emerged five black and mixed-race Butetown locals, including Stephen Miller, Lynette's pimp/boyfriend. By 12 December, after a new fast-track investigation, the five men were charged.

The CPS gave the go-ahead even though the police had no forensic evidence, no weapon had been found, and no motive or opportunity established. Some of the five barely knew each other. The crown's evidence was heavily dependent on the alleged confession of Miller, and the alleged corroborating evidence of, among others, two prostitutes – Leanne Vilday and Angela Psaila – a couple of unemployed gay men and Ms Perriam. A further witness came forward later, a criminal already in prison hoping for parole, who claimed one of the accused had confessed to him while on remand.

On 22 November 1990, three of the accused (Stephen Miller, Tony Paris and Yusef Abdullahi) were found guilty, and two were acquitted.

In February 1992, the producer Toby Sculthorp and I investigated the case for Panorama and highlighted a string of inconsistencies that plagued the case. A media campaign followed, and on 10 December that year, the Court of Appeal quashed the Cardiff Three's convictions, and they walked free. It transpired that Miller had been mercilessly interviewed, shouted at and bullied by detectives during 19 sessions of questioning. He had denied involvement on 307 occasions, but eventually broke down under the remorseless pressure and "confessed", incriminating himself and the others.

Nevertheless, South Wales Police declined to reopen the case unless new evidence was obtained. However, advances in DNA profiling and continued media pressure led to a thorough and efficient re-investigation of the murder and the arrest of Jeffrey Gafoor, a security guard. He promptly admitted being the murderer, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life imprisonment in July 2003.

This clearly left the South Wales Police and the CPS with a dilemma. How had their collection of evidence and witnesses against five wholly innocent men come about? What had led to the flaky prosecution and just how many witnesses and detectives may have lied on oath to secure the convictions ?

It might have been sensible to place this colossal can of worms into the hands of an independent, outside police force for the inevitable further criminal investigation. Instead, the IPCC, which was charged with allocating the inquiry, promptly invited South Wales Police to investigate itself, a baffling decision that may defy logic and common sense but was taken, I understand from a primary source, to "try to help restore the battered morale of the SWP".

This led first ,in February 2007, to three of the witnesses who had given evidence on oath against the innocent men being charged with perjury. They admitted lying, but somewhat revealingly the judge told them: "You were seriously hounded, bullied, threatened and abused and manipulated by the police during a period of several months … as a result you felt compelled to agree to false accounts suggested to you." They were each sentenced to 18 months.

The three witnesses and the five innocent men had one thing in common: they were humble people, they lived on the edge of the law as minor criminals, and were vulnerable to any intimidation by the police.

The evidence thus pointed towards the possibility of a miscarriage of justice perpetrated by detectives who may have perverted the course of justice to secure homicide convictions against innocent men.

A new investigation was begun by the South Wales Police. The officer in charge of this deeply complex and highly sensitive case was Detective Chief Superintendent Chris Coutts. His task included investigating Dick Powell, a senior officer who, according to a former police officer, had been DCS Coutts's colleague and superior. This potential conflict of interest appears to have been ignored.

South Wales Police refused to co-operate with Panorama both in 1992 and for tomorrow night's fresh examination. Not one retired officer involved in the case would talk publicly, nor would anyone from the CPS or the IPCC. Mr Coutts has retired and is writing a book on the affair. His publicity officer asked if we were prepared to pay for an interview with him.

Mr Coutts's thorough investigation eventually led to the arrest in March 2009 of 13 former police officers and two civilians, including Ms Perriam, whose initial testimony had changed the entire direction of the investigation. All were variously charged with conspiracy to pervert the course of justice or perjury. All pleaded not guilty.

An extremely long and detailed opening statement by Nick Dean QC for the prosecution laid out the case. He claimed the prosecution would show that Ms Perriam's new evidence "was lies" and that the story of the five men murdering Lynette White was "absolutely extraordinary … almost entirely a fabrication and was largely the product of the imagination and then the theories and beliefs of police officers".

Mr Dean's allegation was simple and devastating if true – a conspiracy to fit in evidence "so that it implicated those people the police had decided were guilty". In other words, Mr Dean claimed he would show that, in the absence of any firm evidence, the detectives created a murder scenario and then made witnesses and the men they charged fit snugly into the fiction. "The police had moved away from investigating a murder and were instead busy trying to implicate people in that murder – people who were actually completely innocent," Mr Dean told the jury.

Sadly, we never got to hear the prosecution's full case nor any of the defence. What happened next strains belief. There had been increasing problems over the vital business of monitoring and producing some of the one million documents connected to the case. Nearly £500,000, a special software system and two dedicated police officers had been set aside by the judge. Their sole function was to ensure there were no mistakes in this vital documentation process known as "disclosure".

But as it became obvious during the trial that document cock-ups were increasing, the judge decided to perform "an acid test", calling on the prosecution to produce some relevant files. The documents were not produced and a deeply embarrassed prosecution told the judge the documents had been destroyed without proper authorisation. The two disclosure police officers gave vague evidence of the documents having been destroyed, apparently on the orders of Mr Coutts himself.

At this stage, it might have been sensible for the Crown to have Mr Coutts confirm that he had indeed ordered the destruction of the documents. Instead, the hapless CPS decided to bow out of the case. The judge ended the trial there and then with formal verdicts of not guilty. The newly exonerated police officers left court punching the air.

A few weeks later, the missing documents turned up. Mr Coutts (in a comment for which he received no payment) told me if he had ordered the destruction of the documents they would have been destroyed.

Cock-up or conspiracy? I am inclined heavily to the former. This was one more demeaning episode in a 25-year-old scandal that just keeps on giving, and taking. Current cost to the taxpayer: somewhere around £30m. The IPCC has been busily investigating South Wales Police and itself for a report on its role in the myriad cock-ups, which it will publish next month. I understand the words "honest mistakes" will figure in the document.

The CPS is undergoing independent investigation. If the 13 accused Cardiff detectives had been found guilty, presumably all their previous cases – hundreds – would have had to be reopened and re-examined. Instead, they are now considering suing the South Wales Police.

'Justice Denied: The Greatest Scandal?' produced and directed by Toby Sculthorp will be shown on Panorama on BBC1 at 8.30pm tomorrow

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