Stabbing case boy cleared in landmark ruling: Appeal court's declaration of innocence deals fresh blow to criminal justice system

A SCHOOLBOY, who at 13 became a victim of a serious miscarriage of justice, won an unprecedented declaration of innocence by Court of Appeal judges yesterday.

The unequivocal exoneration of Ivan Fergus, now 16, after six months in detention, deals the criminal justice system its second severe blow in as many weeks. It followed the acquittal of the Taylor sisters of murder earlier this month, and led to immediate calls for an inquiry.

Few involved are expected to escape criticism when the appeal court gives its judgment next week - from the trial judge, Peter Rowntree, down to the prosecution team and the police. However, most blame is likely to be levelled at the then defence lawyers. His solicitors, Topping & Co, of south-east London, have since been suspended from practising over matters not connected with the appeal.

As a model pupil at a south London school, Ivan was convicted of stabbing a bank clerk with intent to rob - solely on questionable and uncorroborated identification evidence. He was sentenced to 15 months' youth custody. A month after the assault, the bank clerk identified Ivan, when he spotted him at a bus stop. But yesterday the appeal judges were told Ivan 'bore little resemblance' to the description the clerk had originally given police.

He had then said the attacker was 5ft 11in; aged 16-18; had a light brown complexion; was unshaven; and had patterns shaved into his hair. In fact Ivan was 4in shorter, was aged 13, had no facial hair; had a dark Afro-Caribbean complexion; and patterns were not shaved into his hair until two weeks after the assault.

Further, Ivan had a cast-iron alibi, but no one - not even his own lawyers - had taken complete statements from all four alibi witnesses, or called them as defence witnesses. Neither did they call his mother, Nellie, who knew he did not own the clothes described by the assault victim, or his hairdresser, or several character witnesses, including teachers.

Lord Justice Steyn, Mr Justice Hutchison and Mr Justice Rougier quashed the conviction on all three grounds: the weakness of the identification evidence; misdirection by the trial judge; and failures by the defence. They had been told police were partly to blame for failing to investigate Ivan's alibi, despite being urged to do so by prosecution lawyers, and for not making notes and a photograph of Ivan, taken after his arrest, available to prosecution or defence.

Lord Justice Steyn said: 'Ivan Fergus may leave this court knowing not just that his conviction was unsafe and unsatisfactory, but that it is our judgment that the case against him was a wholly false one and he is entirely innocent.' Normally, appeal judges confine themselves to legal terms surrounding 'unsafe and unsatisfactory'.

Afterwards Ivan spoke of his 'terror' and 'confusion', and his 'anger' at those responsible for the disruption of his education and life. He has just taken his GCSEs and is to study art and design at college.

His mother said: 'The terrifying thing is that, if I had just left it and not made a fuss, he would have been criminalised for the rest of his life. The police could have picked him up and said, 'You've done this sort of thing before, haven't you'. '

Harriet Harman, Ivan's MP in Peckham, said: 'I'm calling for a full investigation into the Crown Prosecution's handling of the case, and the police investigation into the case, and will be calling for the Home Office to consider compensation.'

(Photograph omitted)