Murder on the M25

1988, December: M25 Murder: Three men, Michael Davis, 34, Raphael Rowe, 32, and Randolph Johnson, 35, from south-east London, were convicted of the murder of Peter Hurburgh, a hairdresser, during a series of attacks in December 1988.

The jury were told they had gone on a crime spree around the M25, armed with a gun and a machete, robbing and causing mayhem. Mr Hurburgh died from a heart attack after he and his gay partner were dragged from a car near Fickleshole, Surrey, tied up and severely beaten.

Another victim, Timothy Napier, almost died after three men broke into his father's house at Oxted, Surrey, and stabbed him during a struggle. Next they went to Fetcham where at about 0530 in Hillyfield Lane the two occupants were bound and the house ransacked and property stolen. A joint Metropolitan Police and Surrey operation set up under Detective Chief Superintendent Vince McFadden and soon information was pouring in to the incident room.

Forty eight hours after the murder arrests were made in Sydenham. Davis, Rowe and Johnson, all with serious criminal records were found guilty of the murder and a range of other serious offences. The three men always stressed their innocence and lawyers who brought an appeal against the conviction in 1993 argued the convictions were based almost entirely on the evidence of three witnesses who had originally been suspects. There was also a lack of scientific evidence to link the men to the crime.

The battle to clear their names was rejoined in 1997 when the Criminal Cases Review Commission ordered a fresh inquiry into the killing and the subsequent investigation. That inquiry, by Greater Manchester Police, threw up several problems with the original case on which the judges made their ruling.

Most importantly, the judges said, both the defence and prosecution had not been aware at the time of the appeal and the original trial that a central witness, Norman Duncan, was an informer for Surrey Police. The judges said he had lied about the way he had volunteered information to officers and declined to mention that he had been offered a reward.

Following a range of appeals and pressure the case was again heard and the Appeal Court judgement was handed down by Lord Justice Mantell in July 2000. The three men were released. Although the cases against them were "formidable" the Judge said, and in particular that against Rowe "overwhelming", in the opinion of the court the convictions were not safe. But there was no doubt that the Appeal Court regarded the release a consequence of technicalities (Johnson).

The court found that detectives had conspired with a key witness Norman Duncan at the Old Bailey trial. His fingerprints had been found on one of the stolen cars and had appeared for the prosecution in return for £10,000 and immunity. The fact that Duncan had been paid was not revealed at the time of the trial and must Lord Justice Mantell said "dent the credibility of Duncan and the police directly involved. Mantell also said "This is not a finding of innocence – far from it." A statement from Surrey Police said:

"Surrey Police co-operated fully with the work of the Criminal Cases Review Commission and with the investigation carried out by Greater Manchester Police. That investigation found no evidence of wrongdoing by any Surrey Police officer."

BBC 17 July 2000: The judges made their decision after the men's lawyers revealed crucial evidence was withheld at the original trial. It also emerged that a jury member had personally visited some key locations relevant to the trial, raising the possibility that his view of the evidence could have been unfairly altered. Lord Justice Mantell, Mr Justice Blofeld and Mrs Justice Rafferty said the decision was not a finding of innocence.

Lord Justice Mantell said that in the court's view the case against all three appellants was "formidable", and against Mr Rowe "overwhelming". But he added:

"However, we are bound to follow the approach set out earlier in this judgement, namely assuming the irregularities which we have identified had not occurred would a reasonable jury have been bound to return verdicts of guilty? "In all conscience we cannot say that it would."

The European Court of Human Rights ruled unanimously earlier this year that their trial had been unfair and the Criminal Cases Review Commission referred their case back to court.

Raphael Rowe is now a reporter for the BBC.

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