The police must learn to live with Winston Silcott

In the run-up to Mr Silcott's release, there have been malicious leaks about his rehabilitation
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The Independent Online

Considering that he is a policemen, Norman Brennan does not appear to have much respect for the law. Here he is, speaking under the auspices of his pressure group, the Victims of Crime Trust, about the imminent release of Winston Silcott, who has served 18 years for the murder of an amateur boxer, Anthony Smith. "The name Winston Silcott is synonymous with the murder of one of our colleagues. His reputation is tarnished and he doesn't deserve to be welcomed back into the community."

Constable Brennan knows perfectly well that Mr Silcott's conviction for the murder of Constable Keith Blakelock was overturned more than a decade ago. But that doesn't stop him from continuing to talk as if the Blakelock killing is the crime Mr Silcott is in prison for.

On other occasions, Constable Brennan has been even more outspoken. "Any time Winston Silcott's name is mentioned it makes police officers' hair stand on end," he told one newspaper last year. "We in the police service don't believe that justice has been done. Many of my colleagues, including myself, are convinced that the right people were convicted at the time."

The people Constable Brennan refers to are Mr Silcott himself, Engin Raghip and Mark Braithwaite. The three were all convicted of Constable Blakelock's murder in 1987, and all had their convictions overturned when it was proved in the Court of Appeal that the only evidence presented against them at the trial had been false confessions fabricated by two officers.

Certainly, it must have been an appalling blow to the entire police force when their attempts to find justice for Constable Blakelock fell apart so spectacularly. The murder of the father-of-three was one of the most savage mob killings ever to have happened in Britain. Constable Blakelock lost his life when he and other officers were protecting firemen as they tried to control a fire that had been set alight during a riot at the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, north London. The riot had itself been ignited when 49-year-old Cynthia Jarrett had died of a heart attack during a police raid on her home.

Constable Blakelock was attacked by a baying mob of at least 30 people, and received 42 wounds to his body, including eight machete wounds to his head. There were around 200 witnesses to this obscene act of barbarism, none of whom would give evidence in open court. Among the 1,000 photographs taken of the scene that night, no identification of Mr Silcott could be made.

No one in the police force makes any secret of the fact that they still wish to find justice for Constable Blakelock, and it is right that they should do so. A group of 35 detectives was recently given the go-ahead to continue with a review of the case, using previously unavailable technology and techniques such as image enhancement and DNA testing.

But in an echo of Constable Brennan's own contempt for the workings of the judicial system, some senior officers contend that "it was no coincidence that the decision to extend the review came at the same time as the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, announced the end of the 'double jeopardy' rule, which stops defendants being tried twice for the same crime". Officially, it has been stressed that this new investigation is not concentrating on names already in the public domain.

But worrying attitudes towards Mr Silcott seemed to be corroborated when it emerged that a close friend of his, Delroy Lindo, had been targeted by the police ever since the murder. A prominent member of the campaign to free Mr Silcott, Mr Lindo had been picked up by the police 37 times since his friend's arrest, with no convictions. Eventually, under political pressure, an internal police report was undertaken which admitted that Mr Lindo had been subjected to "unwarranted police harassment". It emerged that there had been 93 separate intelligence reports on the Lindo family, involving 49 officers. Some of the police had been present at the Broadwater Farm riot, although the report fell short of making a link between Mr Lindo's harassment and the Silcott case.

Likewise, in the run-up to Mr Silcott's release, there have been malicious leaks from within the criminal justice system about his rehabilitation. On several occasions when he has been released on shopping or home visits, part of the necessary preparation for his release, the tabloid press has been tipped off, and have been around to take photographs for publication alongside aggressive text about how he has been treated with kid gloves.

Yet Mr Silcott's sentence has by no means been short. Most murderers serve 12 to 14 years, while Mr Silcott has served 18, four above his tariff. Part of the reason for his extended conviction has been his own insistence that he is innocent of murder, having killed Anthony Smith in self-defence. But since he learnt three years ago that parole boards no longer had to take a hardline attitude to protestations of innocence, he has been "a model prisoner", taking part in anger management and other courses. The Parole Board now accepts that he is not a danger to the public, and the Home Office and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, accept their findings.

The whole of the police force must do so as well. For the awful thing is that the narrow mindset under which the Blakelock inquiry has been conducted in the past must surely have contributed to the failure of the police ever to have come up with a credible reconstruction of the events of that awful evening. There is no excuse for what was done to Constable Blakelock. Yet the depth of anger against the police among the community at that time is best judged by the fact that the police could come up with no witness willing to speak out and be cross-examined about this despicable crime.

The police say that they found 14 witnesses to Mr Silcott's leadership of the attack. But when these statements were presented at trial, the judge dismissed a number of them as obvious fantasy, discounted many more as having been extracted under dubious circumstances, and found that several others simply said that Mr Silcott "hated the police" or "was the governor at Broadwater Farm".

In some respects, he was a big-shot there. Mr Silcott may have been feared. He had been convicted on burglary charges, and found guilty of carrying an offensive weapon. He had been acquitted for an earlier murder, of a 19-year-old postal worker, Lennie McIntosh. But he was also respected, and known in the community as a young man who stood up for his contemporaries, ran a local disco, managed a greengrocery on the estate, founded the Broadwater Farm Youth Association and attended meetings with Haringey Police discussing the problems the youth of the area had with police.

The truth about Mr Silcott is probably similar to the banal truth about most of us - that he has both good and bad in him. He has served his time, and is on licence for the rest of his life. If he fails to follow the terms of his parole, he will go back to prison. But if the police wish to convince the black community that their attitudes have changed, they will have to learn to give him some space to rebuild his life, and encourage the media to realise that they should do so too. For too long Mr Silcott has taken all of the blame for the gross act of a large mob, an entire community, and a racial climate that all now agree was wrong and corrosive. Mr Silcott deserves his fresh start.