Why did Lynn's killer stay free for 18 years?

Lynn Siddons's murderer was jailed last week for a crime committed in 1978. The case reminds us that miscarriages of justice not only affect the wrongly accused, writes Paul Foot (left) .They also allow the real criminals to remain at large

Paul Foot
Saturday 03 August 1996 23:02 BST

The elderly working-class woman from Derby was complaining as usual about injustice, but her story was most unusual. I had interviewed lots of people who complained about relatives convicted for something they didn't do.

But Florence Siddons, who had been sent to see me at the Daily Mirror by her MP, Philip Whithead, had a rather different story. Her beloved granddaughter Lynn, 16, had been stabbed to death in a sadistic murder three years earlier, on 3 April, 1978. A 14-year-old boy, Fitzroy Brookes, who had been walking with her when she was attacked had been charged - and rightly acquitted.

In court, it soon became obvious that the real murderer was the boy's stepfather, Michael Brookes. The boy told the court that his stepfather had surprised them in the woods and savagely attacked Lynn with a knife, urging his stepson to take part. The judge plainly believed him. So did the jury.

Brookes's wife had since made a statement in which she exposed Brookes's penchant for sticking knives into women. The case seemed open and shut. Yet the Derbyshire police, sulking after the acquittal, adamantly refused to re-open it.

What could I do to help this woman? The obvious course was to print the case against Brookes. But this was surely impossible. Patiently, I explained the law of libel. Nothing could be more libellous, and therefore impossible to print, than calling a man a child murderer.

She looked at me, unblinking, unimpressed. "But it's the truth, Mr Foot," she said. "This man murdered Lynn and he's getting away with it." I said, without any confidence, that I'd do what I could. "Thanks anyway, Mr Foot," she replied.

For months, I tussled with the evidence, and with Hugh Corrie, the experienced libel lawyer at the Mirror. At first, Corrie would have none of it. Gradually, he relented. We prepared a long summary of the evidence under the headline WHO KILLED LYNN SIDDONS? The proofs were sent up to the Mirror chairman, Tony Miles. He summoned the Mirror features editor, Richard Stott, and me to his ninth floor penthouse where he yelled that we had taken leave of our senses and were hell-bent on ruining the Daily Mirror forever. We went through the whole argument again. Unlike most newspaper chairmen, Miles was a journalist who recognised a good story. The piece appeared across two pages on 8 April, 1981. No one who read it could have any doubt about its thrust: that Michael Brookes murdered Lynn Siddons.

Nothing happened. There was no libel writ, and no action from the Derby police. Again and again over the ensuing years Mrs Siddons came to see me. "Thanks anyway, Mr Foot," became a constant, faintly critical refrain.

In 1985 detectives from Merseyside carried out an investigation into Mrs Siddons's complaints. They were shocked at what they found, and recommended another, deeper inquiry. This was rejected by Derbyshire police and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Jane Deighton, the Siddons's solicitor, hit on the brilliant idea of suing Brookes in the civil courts for assault and battery. This was flung out in 1989 by Mr Justice Schiemann, who leaned over to the press bench and told us that the case was "very complicated" and we should be careful what we wrote.

Schiemann's ruling was overturned in the Court of Appeal and the assault case came to court in 1991. There, Mr Justice Rougier delivered a famous judgement that the Siddons family were entitled to damages from Brookes since he had plainly murdered Lynn.

Five years later, Rougier's judgement has at last been upheld in a criminal court and Brookes has been convicted of murder and sent down for life.

Though plainly dangerous, he had been a free man for more than 17 years after he murdered Lynn, and for 15 years during which he was exposed as a child murderer again and again in a mass-circulation national paper.

Those of us who campaign against criminal injustice are invariably accused of being callous to the victim's family and friends. It's certainly true that our articles stir up old horrors which those who have suffered dreadful crimes would like to forget. But there is another side to the claims that a convicted person is not guilty. It is that the person who should have been convicted is at large. The man who shot Michael Gregsten and Valerie Storie at a lay-by off the A6 in 1961 has, I believe, been free ever since. The man (or men) who shot the newspaper boy Carl Bridgewater in 1978, was, I believe, never caught. When Eddie Browning walked free from the Court of Appeal after being cleared of the horrific 1988 murder of Marie Wilkes on the M50, the West Mercia police announced that they were not going to bother to track down the real murderer. Their sulking corresponded with the sulking of the Derbyshire police when Fitzroy Brookes was acquitted in 1978. Thanks anyway, Mrs Siddons, for so indomitably proving that injustice in murder cases is not only a matter of the wrong people being convicted - but of murderers walking the streets.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in