Two men who died while trying to overturn a murder conviction 33 years ago were cleared yesterday by the Court of Appeal in one of the country's most controversial miscarriages of justice.
David Cooper and Michael McMahon spent 10 years in jail for their supposed part in shooting dead Reginald Stevens, a Luton postmaster, in a case that involved police corruption and the repeated refusal by the courts to admit that they had made a mistake. They were convicted at the Old Bailey on 19 March 1970 of what became known as the "Luton post office murder".
They were released in 1980 but despite five hearings at the Court of Appeal the convictions were never quashed. Mr Cooper died in July 1995, aged 51, and Mr McMahon in July 1999, aged 55. They both died protesting their innocence.
Lord Justice Kennedy, sitting with Mr Justice Cresswell and Mr Justice Bennett in London, overturned the convictions yesterday and said there were "now a number of matters which can be described as causes for genuine concern when evaluating the safety of these convictions".
The case began on 10 September 1969 when a four-man gang drove to Luton from London, planning to rob a post office by forcing a postal worker to hand over his keys as he left work at 6pm. But when the gang met resistance from Stevenshe was shot dead.
The robbers fled in a van driven by Alfred Matthews, who already had a conviction for robbing post offices. He later surrendered himself and was charged with murder. But Kenneth Drury then a police Commander, offered to drop charges against Matthews if he testified against three East End petty crooks. Matthews walked free after he picked out David Cooper, Michael McMahon and a third man, Patrick Murphy, in an identity parade, saying they had been with him on the raid.
Drury was later convicted of five counts of corruption in connection with another case and was jailed in 1977 for eight years.
The murder case went to trial in 1970 and the presiding judge, Mr Justice Cusack, recommended that each of the convicts should serve a minimum of 20 years of a life sentence. But public unease over the conviction persisted and in June 1980 Ludovic Kennedy published his book on the case, Wicked Beyond Belief. Within a month, the former home secretary William Whitelaw released the men from prison.
In March 2001, the Criminal Cases Review Commission decided to refer the case back for the sixth appeal.
Ben Emmerson QC, representing the families of the two men, said investigations had uncovered a "considerable volume" of fresh evidence.
Mr Cooper's brother, Terry Disher, 59, said after yesterday's ruling: "I am pleased ... but I am still bitter about the way they have been treated by the judiciary and the way a corrupt police officer conducted the case."Reuse content