Teenager's murder appeal to Lords echoes Bentley case

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LAWYERS for an 18-year-oldconvicted of murdering a policeman will this week present a submission to the House of Lords arguing it was wrong in law.

In a case that echoes the landmark Craig and Bentley trial of 1953, Philip English was found guilty of the murder of Sergeant Bill Forth - even though no one suggested that he had killed the Northumbria police officer.

Like Derek Bentley, who was hanged, he was convicted because he appeared to be engaged on a joint enterprise. English, however, had not incited his co-defendant, Paul Weddle. (According to the Crown, Derek Bentley had yelled "Let him have it, Chris", to his partner, Christopher Craig). Nor was English even at the scene when the murder took place. He was handcuffed and under arrest in a neighbouring street.

Nevertheless, Weddle and English were jointly found guilty of murder. Weddle was sentenced to life with a recommendation that he serve 25 years; English, who was only 15 at the time of the stabbing, was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure and given a 15-year tariff.

English had an unsettled upbringing after his parents divorced when he was a baby. By his teens, he was regularly playing truant, and was fined pounds 400 for breaking school windows. On 20 March, 1993, he left home after an argument with his mother and took a sleeping-bag to a site on the edge of a Gateshead council estate at Sunniside where teenagers congregated. Like others there, he was using drugs supplied by Paul Weddle.

That evening, Weddle decided to have it out with the boyfriend of his ex-girlfriend. He and a companion, Neil Eager, collected pieces of fencing and went along to her house. There was a rumpus, and the girl called the police. Weddle and Eager ran off down an alleyway. Eager noticed English, who was asleep, and roused him. Weddle gave him a piece of fencing. English joined them in Cloverhill, a grassed area in the centre of the estate. As the police arrived, scuffles started and Eager made himself scarce. Weddle was apprehended by Sgt Forth, and yelled to English, "Hit him, hit him." English hit the officer four times around the buttocks, legs and lower back. Seeing another policeman approaching, he ran off.

He was then rugby-tackled by PC William Hay at the back of Fernville Avenue, handcuffed and held down by passers-by. While this was going on, Weddle produced a small knife and stabbed Forth to death.

"Assaulting a police officer is a serious crime, and Philip should do time for that. But he played no part in murder," Mandy English, Philip's stepmother, insists.

Charles James, a Bradford solicitor who has given free legal advice to the family, said: "The similarities to the Craig and Bentley case are striking - the main difference being that Philip was not even in sight when the murder happened."

The prosecution argued at the trial that English was engaged in a joint enterprise with Weddle, gave no verbal indication that he had abandoned the joint enterprise, and was therefore equally culpable. Ironically, Bentley was hanged because he was supposed to have shouted something; and English convicted because he didn't shout anything.

The central point in his favour is that the other policeman ran after him, straight past the spot where Sgt Forth was grappling with Weddle. The officer was on his feet, and in no apparent difficulty, otherwise he would have stopped to assist him. He did not see a knife.

According to the pathologist's report, Forth had been mortally wounded by the very first blow, which went straight through the heart. There was no blood on English's clothes, and no evidence that he knew Weddle had a knife.

The case aroused intense emotion in the area. "The family was told that because of prejudicial publicity, the trial would be held in Leeds," recalled Mandy English. "But then it was listed at Teesside Crown Court. The murdered officer had lived locally, in Sunderland.

"While on remand, Philip made progress. We got back the son we'd lost. He was doing well educationally. Staff were in tears when they learned the verdict."

English was found guilty by a 10-2 majority. He is now in HMP Moorland, Doncaster.

In the aftermath, there was continuing publicity. The film director Michael Winner campaigned to put up a memorial to the murdered officer. One was erected in the local high sreet. It was unveiled in March this year by Tony Blair, the Labour Party leader and MP for neighbouring Sedgefield, six days before English's first appeal was heard. It was dismissed.

Ironically, Mandy English, who has been co-ordinating a campaign on behalf of her stepson, is herself a Labour Party councillor, and a member of the Police Authority for Durham. She has had to suffer media hostility. "I thought of resigning, but didn't because it just made the family seem guilty. All we could cling to was that he hadn't murdered him."

"This is a shock," said Iris Bentley, who campaigned for a pardon for her brother, Derek, for 40 years. "They all said it could never happen again."