Court of Appeal quashes convictions of the Oval Four

Thursday 5 December 2019

Judy Khan QC, Joint Head of Garden Court Chambers, represented the appellants instructed by Jenny Wiltshire of Hickman & Rose and Steven Bird of Birds Solicitors.

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Forty-seven years after they were convicted of ‘mugging’ on the London Underground, the Court of Appeal has quashed the convictions of Sterling Christie, Winston Trew, and George Griffiths following a referral from the Criminal Cases Review Commission (‘CCRC’). These men, together with Constantine Boucher, whom the CCRC has been unable to trace, became known as the ‘Oval Four’.

The Court of Appeal heard that DS Derek Ridgewell, the senior investigating officer in this case, was responsible for a series of cases in the 1970s in which young black men were falsely accused of crimes, many on the London Underground system. Ridgewell’s corrupt methods became so notorious that in 1973 there were calls for the Home Secretary to open an inquiry into his cases. Instead British Transport Police moved him from a unit investigating ‘muggings’ to its mailbag theft unit. In 1980 Ridgewell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal mailbags involving theft of goods in transit valued at well over £300,000 (equivalent to almost £1.3m today) and was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment. He died in prison in 1982.

Winston Trew has published a book, Black for a Cause, which detailed Ridgewell’s long history of ‘fit-ups’. The book was used as evidence in the CCRC’s investigation into another of Ridgewell’s cases – that of Stephen Simmons, whose 1976 conviction for mailbag theft was quashed by the Court of Appeal in January 2018.

Winston Trew, Sterling Christie, George Griffiths and Constantine ‘Omar’ Boucher were aged between 19 and 23 at the time of their arrests. They were all born in Jamaica and had moved to Britain as children.

They were arrested at Oval tube station in south London on 16th March 1972 by a specialist ‘anti-mugging’ unit of the British Transport Police (BTP) commanded by DS Derek Ridgewell who previously served in the Southern Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) police force.

After their arrests, the men were taken to Kennington police station where they signed confessions written for them by DS Ridgewell. In these statements they admitted attempting to pick a man’s pocket and violently resisting arrest. They also confessed to previous theft offences elsewhere on the Tube network.

In October 1972 the men faced trial at the Central Criminal Court. They pleaded not guilty. They said they had been innocently on Oval tube platform and that they had defended themselves when set upon by the plain clothes officers, who did not announce that they were police. They explained that they had signed the false confessions in fear of further assault by the police.

On 7 November 1972 they were convicted of the Oval station charges, with Winston Trew, Sterling Christie, and Constantine ‘Omar’ Boucher sentenced to two years in prison, and George Griffiths to a period of Borstal training because of his young age.

In July 1973 the Court of Appeal reviewed the case. It said at the time: ‘there could not be a greater case of head-on collision between the Crown and the evidence of the accused at the trial’. The Court of Appeal rejected the men’s appeal for acquittal although it did reduce their jail terms.

In the early 1970s, as head of the BTP’s ‘anti-mugging unit’, DS Ridgewell was involved in four trials which were, or would later become, controversial. These are the cases of ‘The Oval Four’, ‘The Stockwell Six’, ‘The Waterloo Four’ and ‘The Tottenham Court Road Two’.

The accused in the ‘Tottenham Court Road Two’ case were two devout Jesuit students from Rhodesia who were studying social work at Oxford University. Their trial judge Gwyn Morris halted their trial and said ‘I find it terrible that here in London people using public transport should be pounced on by police officers without a word’. Magistrates in the ‘Waterloo Four’ case also criticised DS Ridgewell’s methods.

Both these cases attracted press attention and in 1973 Ian Fraser MP and the National Council for Civil Liberties contacted the Home Secretary to request an inquiry into the cases investigated by DS Ridgewell.

The inquiry did not happen. British Transport Police transferred DS Ridgewell to another area of work investigating thefts from Royal Mail bags in transit.

In June 1975 Stephen Simmons and two friends were arrested by DS Ridgewell and two other officers as they sat in Mr Simmons’ car in Clapham, south London and accused of stealing mailbags.

The men denied the allegations but were convicted after the police officers told a court that they had admitted the crimes.  In April 1976 they were convicted of theft and, as they were under age 21, sent for Borstal training. Mr Simmons’ car was confiscated.

In January 1980 DS Ridgewell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal from mailbags for which he was sentenced to seven years in prison. He died of natural causes in prison two years later in 1982. He was aged 37.

In 2013, Mr Simmons, who went on to become a successful businessman, discovered that his arresting officer, DS Ridgewell, had been convicted of mailbag theft.

He contacted CCRC which investigated his case before referring it to the Court of Appeal which in 2018 quashed his conviction.

Winston Trew, who is now a retired university lecturer, has been particularly vocal in protesting his innocence. His book called ‘Black for a Cause’ about the case was published in 2010.

During its review of Mr Simmons’ case, the CCRC contacted Mr Trew. His book formed part of the evidence in the Simmons appeal. Following the quashing of Mr Simmons’ conviction, Mr Trew applied for his own case to be considered.

Constantine ‘Omar’ Boucher is now believed to live overseas and could not be traced by the CCRC.

These young black men were arrested and convicted for offences that not only did they not commit but which were never committed. The long-lasting effects of such a wrongful conviction obtained by the dishonesty of numerous police officers are difficult to imagine.

At the Court of Appeal hearing on 4 December 2019, Sterling Christie was represented by Steven Bird of Birds Solicitors while Winston Trew and George Griffiths were represented by Jenny Wiltshire of Hickman & Rose who also represented Stephen Simmons in his earlier Court of Appeal case. All three appellants were represented by Judy Khan QC of Garden Court Chambers.

After 47 years the wrong done to these individuals has finally been addressed leading to the Lord Chief Justice to say that it was regrettable that the injustice done to them had taken so long to be rectified.

Speaking after the case, Winston Trew said: 

“I wish to express my gratitude to the CCRC and in particular, to my case officer, Anona Bisping, for the excellent and detailed work submitted by her in this dated and complex case.”

Sterling Christie said:

“I wish to thank everyone who supported us over the years in trying to right this miscarriage of justice, those who attended meetings, raised funds and distributed leaflets from various organisations. I would also like to thank my family and friends who have always supported us and known the truth about these convictions.”

Jenny Wiltshire of Hickman & Rose said:

“While the acquittal of these innocent men is very welcome, it is deeply concerning that it has taken so long to happen. 

“Both the British Transport Police and the Home Office were warned about this police officer’s corrupt methods in 1973. 

“They did nothing except move him a different unit, where he continued to offend so that by 1980 he was serving a seven year prison sentence for theft.

“But even then the police did not think to review his past cases. Had they done so, these innocent men’s lives would likely have been very different.”

Steven Bird of Birds Solicitors said:

“This case is an example of the importance of the CCRC and its role in referring miscarriages of justice back to the Court of Appeal.

“They do not refer enough cases but like all other parts of the criminal justice system, the CCRC is woefully under-funded. In addition, potential appellants struggle to find lawyers to advise on applications to the CCRC due to the parlous state of criminal legal aid.

“It is a travesty that these men have waited 47 years for exoneration for crimes that they did not commit.  Justice has now finally been done.”

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