The Cardiff Three: the long wait for justice
It is nearly 25 years since the mutilated body of Lynette White was found in her flat in James Street, in the Butetown district of Cardiff. Her murder led to one of the greatest judicial scandals of the last half century and the largest ever trial of British police officers, yet the story has still to reach a just and final conclusion.
This month, the first of a series of official reports into the case is due to be published, and there is a new book by freelance journalist Satish Sekar, who has done more than anyone to bring to light the nature of a miscarriage of justice that ranks alongside those of the , the and the .
It was on Valentine's Day in 1988 that White, a 20-year-old sex worker, was found with her throat slit and more than 50 stab wounds. Initially, a search was launched for a dark-haired white man seen leaving the scene. Five young men, none of them white, were arrested and charged with her murder: Tony Paris, Yusef Abdullahi, Stephen Miller (White's boyfriend), and John and Ronnie Actie. In 1990, the first three were convicted and jailed for life and the Acties acquitted; thus the case is sometimes known as the Cardiff Three and sometimes the . Part of the evidence against them came from two other sex workers, Leanne Vilday and Angela Psaila, and a neighbour of White's, Mark Grommek.
Two years later, following a major campaign, the three were cleared on appeal, although they still had to contend with murmurings that they might have been involved. Delivering the judgment in the court of appeal, Lord Chief Justice Taylor said of the interrogation of Miller that "short of physical violence, it is hard to conceive of a more hostile and intimidating approach by officers to a suspect". Michael Mansfield QC, who represented Miller, said that the recordings of the interrogation "left an indelible impression on my memory … I took the trouble to count the number of times : over 300."
A painstaking and exemplary reinvestigation of the case was eventually undertaken in 1999 under Detective Superintendent Kevin O'Neill. Developments in DNA techniques led detectives to search for a suspect whom they were to nickname Cellophane Man, because a crucial DNA trace was found on a blood-stained piece of cellophane at the crime scene. This took them to a 37-year-old security guard called Jeffrey Gafoor, from Llanharan, near Bridgend, who had received only one conviction in the intervening years, for attacking a colleague with a brick.
Gafoor, once he realised he was a suspect, took an overdose of paracetamol but the police, who had him under surveillance, broke into his home and saved his life. In hospital, he told police: "I would rather not die. I would rather face the music but I was looking forward to death to find out if God exists or the devil." He claimed he had had an argument with White over the £30 she was charging him and a fight had developed. Faced with the overwhelming evidence against him, and was jailed for life, albeit, as Sekar points out, with a shorter tariff than the one originally set for the three innocent men.
Prosecution witnesses Vilday, Psaila and Grommek were charged with perjury. During their trial in 2008, they claimed they had been harassed into lying by the police. The judge, Mr Justice Maddison, accepted that "you were seriously hounded, bullied, threatened, abused and manipulated by the police … as a result of which you felt compelled to agree to false accounts they suggested to you". He added that what they had been subjected to was "unacceptable in a civilised society" but jailed them for 18 months.
Finally, in 2009, were charged in connection with the case. Eight of them, and two civilians, stood trial last year at Swansea crown court; a further trial of the others was due to follow this year. All pleaded not guilty. In December last year, , Mr Justice Sweeney. It was said that documents essential to the case, which should have been disclosed to the defence, had been destroyed. "When a trial has become irredeemably unfair," said the judge, "it must stop." The defendants, including those yet to stand trial, were formally declared not guilty.
Amazingly, not long after the abandonment of the trial, it emerged that the documents had not been destroyed at all. Two inquiries have been launched. The first, being carried out by the Independent Complaints Commission into what happened to the documents, is due to report shortly. The IPCC commissioner, Sarah Green, described this as "a very tightly focused investigation that concentrates on events regarding the alleged destruction of IPCC documents … We are not investigating the reasons for the collapse of the trial, which is a matter for the director of public prosecutions (Keir Starmer)."
This parallel inquiry, being carried out under Michael Fuller, of the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, has a remit to establish "whether the prosecution team (CPS and counsel) approached, prepared and managed disclosure in this case effectively, bearing in mind the history, size and complexity of the investigation and prosecution". Fuller, a former chief constable of Kent and the first black officer to reach that rank, said that "it is important that the public can have confidence in the way the CPS conducts its cases". The results of that inspection are not expected until later in the autumn.
Sekar, who is 48, a Thames polytechnic (now the university of Greenwich) sociology BA from Greenford in west London, became involved in the case from the start, when he was embarking on a career as a researcher and journalist. "I had read an article about it in the bulletin of the Institute of Race Relations and got in touch with them. They put me on to Malik Abdullahi, Yusef's brother, and I went down to Cardiff to meet him and others who knew the five. I found them very open and honest and I was soon convinced that the five were innocent. I had no idea that I would still be involved in the case 20 years later."
In 1991, as part of the Guardian's Justice on Trial series, which had just been launched, we wrote of the . Sekar has doggedly followed the case since then, and his book, The Cardiff Five: Innocent Beyond Any Doubt, was launched in the House of Commons earlier this month. "This case simply refused to go away," he says of his commitment to covering it.
One very powerful section of the book is the evidence of Professor David Barclay, who was head of physical evidence at the National and Operations Faculty at the time of the reinvestigation. He states: "it was inconceivable that multiple offenders were involved … not one of the six or seven people who must, on the police's version, have been milling about in the darkened flat, had trodden in her blood and left bloody footprints". He asks: "How could this very clear scientific picture have become so distorted that the prosecution was able to persuade a jury that the scientific findings supported an entirely mythical and scientifically ludicrous version of events?"
Sekar is now in favour of a complete national database that contains the DNA of every citizen: "I used to oppose such a database passionately, but the hunt for Cellophane Man helped to change my mind." Such a database would, he believes, have led swiftly to Gafoor.
, aged 49, of a burst ulcer and Ronnie Actie died in 2007. There could well have been further tragedies: after the original trial, Lynette White's angry father, the late Terry White, confronted the acquitted John Actie with a gun and could well have killed an innocent man, as he had believed the false case against him. While the wrongly arrested have been paid compensation for their conviction, they were all anxious to see justice done at the abandoned trial. An estimated £30m to £40m has been spent on the original bungled investigation and the subsequent failed prosecution of the police.
Sekar is extremely sceptical about what will emerge from the reports, and whether the case of the Cardiff Five will ever be properly resolved. Although the stain of a shameful miscarriage of justice will remain with the South Wales police, so far, the only people to have been punished for what happened are two vulnerable sex workers and a neighbour of the dead woman bullied into giving false evidence.
• The Cardiff Five: Innocent Beyond Any Doubt by Satish Sekar is published by Waterside Press. To order a copy for £16.50 with free UK p&p go to theguardian.com/bookshop