West Midlands Serious Crime Squad: Police unit to blame for `dozens more injustices'

Miscarriages of justice emerge 10 years after break-up of group that tortured suspects

Ian Burrell
Monday 01 November 1999 01:02 GMT

POLICE FACE calls for a full and independent inquiry as the West Midlands force prepares for revelations of at least seven new miscarriages of justice.

Lawyers last night predicted that the notorious West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, which was disbanded more than a decade ago, could be responsible for dozens of wrongful convictions that have yet to come to light. So far 30 convictions have been quashed by the Court of Appeal because of evidence that the squad fabricated evidence, tortured suspects and wrote false confessions.

The scale of the continuing scandal emerged as Keith Twitchell had his conviction for manslaughter and robbery overturned by the Court of Appeal last Tuesday

Mr Twitchell remembers every detail of what was done to him by members of the West Midlands squad. "Somebody put this bag over my head and it was clamped tight around my mouth and eyes. I remember struggling and heaving but then I must have gone unconscious," he said.

Under those methods, described to the Court of Appeal as "a scenario of torture that beggars belief", he signed a confession that led to him serving a 12-year jail sentence for manslaughter and robbery.

Last week he became the latest victim of the squad to have his conviction overturned. Now 63, he savages the squad's officers as "lazy, incompetent and careless". He was by no means the first, or the last, victim of their actions.

In the summer of 1980 a group of ruthless armed criminals, nicknamed the "Thursday Gang" was wreaking havoc throughout the West Midlands.

The gang had just made its biggest hit - pounds 280,000 from a post office van in Dudley, near Birmingham - and the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad was under pressure to get some results.

The breakthrough appeared to come when one of the gang's number, Keith Morgan, agreed to become a supergrass, followed by a second member of the outfit, Richard "Mad Mac" Mackay. Based on information provided by Morgan and Mackay the squad set up a joint operation with the West Mercia police, called Operation Cat, and in Easter 1982 they carried out a series of raids that led to 29 people being charged.

Among those jailed were the brothers Donald and Ronald Brown, Patrick Gaughan and Michael Dunne.

Despite the convictions being based almost entirely on the uncorroborated evidence of Morgan, a disputed confession by Gaughan and a semi- onfession by Donald Brown, the prosecutions seemed to be another successful case for the squad.

But Operation Cat started to unravel because of the conviction of another supposed member of the gang, Derek Treadaway. Treadaway's conviction was later quashed after it was revealed he was forced to sign a confession after detectives tortured him by placing plastic bags over his head.

During a successful civil action by Treadaway, who received pounds 70,000 in damages from the police and won an Appeal Court victory, the police were severely criticised, and the supergrass handlers and their informants were discredited.

After Treadaway's case the Criminal Cases Review Commission re-examined the cases of the Brown brothers, Dunne and Gaughan and referred them to the Court of Appeal. The Browns' cases had previously been turned down by the Home Office. All four men refused to admit to the bank raids and served out their sentences. Dates for the appeal hearings have yet to be set.

The origins of the West Midlands Police Serious Crime Squad can be traced back to February 1952 when the old City of Birmingham constabulary embarked on an experiment to tackle organised crime by assembling a group of "seasoned and experienced" officers driving "wireless cars".

The Birmingham "Special Crime Squad" proved so successful that it provided the inspiration for the now infamous West Midlands unit, which was founded in 1974.

In 1985 a series of complaints prompted an investigation by the Metropolitan Police.

The ensuing Hay report, which was never made public, criticised the squad's interviewing techniques, failure to properly use pocket books and the inordinate amount of time that officers were allowed to remain with the elite unit.

Although the report was seen by senior West Midlands officers, nothing appears to have been done to improve the practices of those serving in the squad. The complaints continued and a succession of the squad's cases were thrown out of court amid allegations of fabricated confessions.

Many of these were exposed because of the coincidental emergence of a vital new forensic technique, the Esda (Electrostatic Document Analysis) test which revealed that officers were making up statements.

Up until 1986 members of the 25-strong squad would write out false confessions and force the suspects to sign them.

On 14 August 1989, the force's Chief Constable, Geoffrey Dear, disbanded the squad, and an investigation was set up by the independent Police Complaints Authority and conducted by West Yorkshire Police.

The PCA investigation looked at 97 complaints against the squad made between January 1986 and August 1989. Ethnic minority complaints were disproportionately high, with 35 registered by African-Caribbeans and eight by Asians.

Between March 1990 and October 1991 the inquiry passed a succession of files to the Crown Prosecution Service to consider criminal charges against some of the officers concerned. By then the Birmingham Six, convicted of the 1974 IRA pub bombings, had been freed by the Court of Appeal after an investigation in which the squad had played an important part had been shown to be flawed.

But in May 1992, Dame Barbara Mills, Director of Public Prosecutions at the time, decided that there was "insufficient evidence to prosecute" a single officer from the squad.

The PCA's final report was published in January 1993.

It revealed that officers in the squad were working "totally unrealistic" hours. Officers were abusing the overtime system, with some working 100 hours overtime a month, mostly for visits to licensed premises to "meet contacts".

The official report made no mention of the "plastic bagging" and other torture techniques referred to by the many victims of the squad whose convictions have since been quashed by the Court of Appeal.

Nor did it highlight the repeated appearance in interview notes of key "confessional" phrases such as "That bastard's really put me in it" and "You're spot on".

At the end of its pounds 2m inquiry, the PCA recommended disciplinary charges against only seven officers. A further 10 officers would have faced charges but they had already retired, it was announced.

In the event, just four of the squad's officers - Detective Superintendent John Brown, Detective Constable Colin Abbotts, Detective Chief Inspector Bob Goodchild and Detective Constable Tony Adams - were punished for minor disciplinary offences.

Two years ago the three remaining members of the Bridgewater Four, framed by the squad in 1978, were finally set free as the Court of Appeal decided that the crucial confession had been forged.

Gareth Peirce, a lawyer who was involved in the campaign to free the Birmingham Six, said yesterday that there were still dozens of hidden miscarriages. She called for a fresh inquiry into the scale of the corruption. "I have no doubt there are dozens of people who have served time in jail but were innocent. The Serious Crime Squad were operating like the Wild West, they were out of control."

A PCA spokesman said: "We have retained all the files in the interest of justice. Everything was disclosed to the lawyers concerned. The Home Office who handled such appeals at the time were fully briefed of the technique that had been used by the squad."

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