Dome-heist judge admits sleeping but jailed pair are denied appeal

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The judge at the trial of a gang jailed for plotting to steal £200m in diamonds from the Millennium Dome has admitted dozing off during the case, but denies snoring loudly.

Despite the confession by Judge Michael Coombe, the Court of Appeal rejected yesterday the lapse of consciousness as a valid reason to overturn the original robbery convictions.

Five men were jailed at the Old Bailey in February 2002 for the failed heist, which would have been the biggest robbery in UK history if the gang had successfully pulled it off.

The ringleaders, Raymond Betson, 41, and William Cockran, 50, were each sentenced to 18 years for plotting to steal the diamonds in November 2000. The pair cited Judge Coombe's behaviour during the summing up of their defence as one of their main grounds for appealing against their convictions.

Lord Justice Rose, one of the three appeal court judges hearing the case, said yesterday: "The judge very frankly admits he was asleep. It doesn't matter whether he was snoring or not. If he was dozing off, he wasn't paying the attention he ought to have been. The question we have to address is whether it is arguable that, in consequence, these convictions were unsafe." Earlier, Edmund Romilly, the men's lawyer, told the appeal judges: "Everyone can be forgiven for lapses of concentration, but it is another matter if there is sleepfulness, drawing attention to the person who is asleep and deflecting the jury's attention." Mr Romilly argued that snoring made the judge's conduct "more blatant" and displayed "an off-handedness which would not go unnoticed and would rebound prejudicially on the people being tried". He said it was not acceptable for the trial judge, who was the most authoritative person in the courtroom, to behave in such a way.

One of the witnesses to the judge's sleepy behaviour, Tamsen Vian-Courtenay, a journalist, recalled in a statement that she saw his head "fall so far forward as to be almost touching the table".

She stated that she heard sounds that she thought were snoring and that, on occasions, the judge seemed to wake up with a start.

But Lord Justice Rose and his fellow judges refused Betson and Cockran permission to appeal against their convictions. The judges said they would give reasons for their decision today when they will hear an appeal from Aldo Ciarrocchi, 33, of London, against his 15-year sentence for the same crime.

Betson and Cockran will also have their appeals against the length of sentence heard today. The Court of Appeal has already dismissed an appeal by a gang member, Kevin Meredith, 36, against his five-year sentence for conspiracy to steal. A fifth man, Robert Adams, 59, who was sentenced to 15 years for conspiracy to rob, is not appealing against his sentence or his conviction.