Damilola trial: Police in the dock as witness is discredited

Judge and defence lawyers attack prosecution for using evidence of 'damaged and disturbed' 14-year-old girl
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The Independent Online

Even by the standards of a 14-year-old girl, the bragging and bravado heard in court 12 at the Old Bailey during the past month has been incredible.

When the source of the outlandish behaviour is the star witness in what has been billed as one of the most important trials of the decade then the police and Crown Prosecution Service have some questions to answer.

Yesterday, the judge in the trial of four teenage boys accused of stabbing to death 10-year-old Damilola Taylor concluded what most observers felt was obvious; that the witness could not be trusted.

In throwing out the evidence given by the girl, who cannot be named because of her age, Mr Justice Hooper said she was unreliable and had told a number of "embellished lies".

The collapse of the prosecution's main witness – the only person who says she saw the defendants attacking Damilola in Peckham, south-east London in November 2000 – is a serious setback to the case. It immediately resulted in the judge clearing one of the four defendants, a 17-year-old, of all charges.

The case against the teenager, who cannot be named, relied on the now discredited identification evidence provided by the girl. The trial of the remaining three boys continues.

The ruling also raises awkward and embarrassing questions about why the Metropolitan Police and CPS backed such a flaky and unconvincing witness.

Mr Justice Hooper openly criticised the police yesterday when he said there was a "very real danger" that the 14-year-old girl was persuaded to tell lies when the police offered her "inducements".

The girl was told by police that the £50,000 reward money offered by a tabloid news- paper would be "more guaranteed" and that the "nightmare for everybody" would be ended if she had been at the crime scene.

She was also told that she could get one of the defendants, who was her friend, "off the hook" by saying she saw the killing, the judge said.

Mr Justice Hooper commented: "As two officers in part accepted, there can, in my judgment, be no doubt that the various inducements would have made any confession obtained from a suspect inadmissible as unreliable and I would have to so direct the jury."

The spectre of the botched police inquiry into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 has been one explanation offered by a defence barrister for the willingness of detectives and their lawyers to ignore flaws in the girl's testimony in a "desperate" attempt to secure a conviction.

Courtenay Griffiths QC, one of the barristers defending the four teenagers, told the court: "What I am going to suggest to you is that in the post-Lawrence world of policing, the Metropolitan Police and officers involved in this murder investigation could not afford to have another unsolved black death in south-east London. By January 2001, your officers were desperate and, I suggest, you were sent in to manufacture the eyewitness.

"I am going to suggest that you quite cynically took advantage of a disturbed and damaged young girl and turned her into an eyewitness."

On 23 December 2000, almost a month after the stabbing the girl, then aged 12, rang 999 to give anonymous information about the attack.

The court heard that over the next five weeks she told the police that she had seen four youths standing around Damilola with a broken bottle. But from the moment the cross-examination of the witness began her credibility, and that of her police handlers, began to evaporate.

At first she was involved in a series of teenage tantrums when she stormed out of the court after repeatedly being accused of being a liar.

It was then revealed that school records showed the teenager was "dishonest, a liar and an attention seeker". She was described as emotionally disturbed and coming from a broken home with a mother who had convictions for drug dealing.

Defence lawyers claimed that one of the main motivations for the girl was the £50,000 reward. This impression was supported by a videotape of a police interview in which the girl sings "I'm in the money". In another clip when talking about the money to a teacher who accompanied her to the interviews, she said: "Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme" and made a grasping hands gesture.

The police appeared to have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep their prime witness happy. The girl and her mother ran up a hotel bill of £4,133, which included £161 on one meal, in eight days, while living under police protection.

Police also bought the girl new clothes, hundreds of pounds worth of phone cards, a new mobile phone, numerous meals and took her on trips to the seaside.

The judge said yesterday that there was no one to back her account of the attack.

"The highest it could be put is that she could have been in the vicinity at the time," Mr Justice Hooper said.

The judge added that the witness's account as to the location of the attack was contradicted by the evidence of the blood trail found at the scene.

The girl had "embellished her story from her fertile imagination", said the judge.

This included described seeing Damilola "crawling on his hands and knees". She said she heard him crying "Help, help" while his voice was getting weaker.

The judge said an explanation given by Constable Carolyn Crooks, one of the officers involved in interviewing the girl, that the teenager liked to lie so her story sounded better "undermines her credibility so much that no jury could be sure that she was telling the truth about anything important".