Two men jailed for the murder of three gangsters yesterday had their convictions referred to the Court of Appeal following allegations that the key witness had agreed to sell his story before the trial.
Michael Steele and Jack Whomes were given life sentences in 1998 for the murders of Pat Tate, Tony Tucker and Craig Rolfe in what became known as the Essex Boys killings. The three were shot dead in a Range Rover parked in a country lane in Rettendon, Essex, in December 1995.
The key evidence was provided by a supergrass called Darren Nicholls, who was himself facing a long prison sentence after being found in possession of a large quantity of cannabis.
But after the trial it emerged that Nicholls had agreed a deal with London Weekend Television, a division of Granada TV, to make a video diary of his experience of being on a witness protection scheme, but the programme was never made. The value of the deal is said to have been between £10,000 and £15,000, although only £1,000 was paid to Nicholls.
The gangland shootings later became a film, Essex Boys, starring Sean Bean.
In his summing-up at the trial at the Old Bailey, Mr Justice Hidden told the jury: "I hardly need stress the importance of Nicholls's evidence. So much hinges on what he said."
The case is being referred by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which examines suspected miscarriages of justice, after lawyers for the convicted men claimed Nicholls was unreliable.
Nicholls said that Steele was behind a series of drug smuggling runs in 1995. One had sparked a feud which culminated in a row over a shipment of poor-quality cannabis. Three other dealers - Tate, Tucker and Rolfe - were then said to have been ambushed in Essex, with Steele and his henchman Whomes firing eight shots at close range into their heads.
Steele, 62, a self-employed engineer, from Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, and Whomes, 43, a self-employed mechanic from Brockford, Suffolk, had denied committing the murders. Nicholls, who is a self-confessed drug dealer, claimed to be Steele and Whomes' getaway driver.
The trial heard that in 1993 Steele and Whomes were serving sentences for unconnected offences in prison when they met Nicholls.
They continued their friendship after their release and in 1995 Steele bought a boat for drug-running from Belgium to the East Anglian coast. Three runs, bringing 220kg of cannabis, were said to have been made. The feud with Tate, 37, Tucker, 38, and Rolfe, 26, was said to have erupted after one of the shipments.
As well as murder, Steele and Whomes were convicted of conspiring to import cannabis, for which Steele was sentenced to eight years and Whomes six and a half years. A third man, Peter Corry, from Clacton-on-Sea, received four-and-a-half years for conspiracy to import cannabis. His conviction is also being referred to the Court of Appeal.
Whomes' solicitor, James Nichol, said: "This is the latest case in a long line in which people have been wrongly convicted on the say-so of a prison grass. It's a scandal and time that either the Government legislated or the Court of Appeal took steps to exclude the evidence of prisoners."