Hoogstraten freed after winning appeal

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The Independent Online

One of Britain's most notorious property barons, who was jailed for killing a business rival, was set free today after winning a legal battle to clear his name.

Nicholas van Hoogstraten had served a year in prison after being convicted of the manslaughter of father-of-six Mohammed Raja.

He left the Old Bailey today with his lawyers after the Court of Appeal agreed that the prosecution's case against him did not stand up legally.

The man once described as Britain's youngest millionaire may now consider suing for wrongful imprisonment.

Hoogstraten, 58, from Uckfield, East Sussex, had been cleared of murder but convicted of manslaughter of Mr Raja at the Old Bailey last year. He was jailed for 10 years.

He won the right to a retrial when his conviction was quashed in July by the Court of Appeal.

His lawyers had successfully argued that Hoogstraten's conviction last year was unsafe.

Hoogstraten's defence team then went on to argue that there was no case left for him to answer at all. It had no basis in law. There was a complete lack of evidence on which a jury could convict.

He could not have foreseen that the attack on Mr Raja - carried out by henchmen Robert Knapp and David Croke - would inevitably end in death, they asserted.

Croke and Knapp had stabbed and shot the 62-year-old businessman at point blank range at his home in Sutton, south London, in July 1999.

Judge Sir Stephen Mitchell agreed with Hoogstraten's counsel Geoffrey Cox QC that there was no foundation for a manslaughter case against Hoogstraten.

He based his decision on a number of legal authorities and said: "If the act causing death was not foreseen, then it was an act for which the secondary party (allegedly Hoogstraten) could not be liable. There is no halfway house. If he is not liable, he is not guilty of murder or manslaughter.

"I have come to the conclusion that if the prosecution were successful in establishing the facts, those facts could not found a conviction of manslaughter."

But prosecutor David Waters QC immediately asked to seek leave to appeal against the judge's ruling - which was met with angry abuse from Hoogstraten.

Hoogstraten, who has convictions for violence and once described his tenants as "filth", shouted from the dock: "It's an absolute disgrace."

The judge told him: "I know this is very difficult for you, but you must not interrupt Mr Waters."

The judge allowed the prosecution to seek leave to appeal but the appeal court judges decided today that they had no jurisdiction.

They referred the matter back to Justice Mitchell who released Hoogstraten.

Prosecution had originally alleged that Hoogstraten wanted revenge after Mr Raja

began court proceedings against him alleging fraud. Had the action succeeded,

Hoogstraten would have faced criminal proceedings and possible jail.

He had allegedly decided to teach the 62-year-old a lesson and asked Knapp - an old friend and enforcer he met in prison decades before - to take care of it. Knapp took Croke, another ex-convict, with him.

They went disguised as gardeners to the leafy suburban street where Mr Raja lived.

Raja was stabbed five times and also shot in the face with a sawn-off shotgun.

Prosecutor Mr Waters had resisted Hoogstraten's bid to have the case thrown out.

Mr Waters maintained that the Court of Appeal had sent it back for a retrial - not to throw it out altogether.

Defence had argued there was no case to answer on the basis of joint enterprise. After complex legal arguments spanning weeks - which went to the Court of Appeal a second time- Hoogstraten won his battle.

To retry him in front of a jury, the Crown would have had to prove joint enterprise by showing that Hoogstraten had foresight into what happened, Mr Cox had argued.

"It would be unlawful to allow the indictment to proceed. The legal formulation of the offence is flawed. There is no way at all a jury could be directed to manslaughter."

He also argued that the case should be stayed because it breached Article 7 of the Human Rights legislation.

Mr Cox said the prosecution had failed to prove that he knew they would kill him.