The Maxwell Confait Murder became a cause célèbre in the United Kingdom during the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the original conviction coming to be regarded as a classic miscarriage of justice.
It was around half past one on the morning of Saturday 22nd April 1972 that the fire brigade was called to attend a fire at 27 Doggett Road, Catford in south-east London. By the time the brigade arrived the blaze had taken hold of both the basement and the ground floor of the property but was soon brought under control. It was however during their inspection of the premises that a Station Officer Speed found a body in one of the back bedrooms. As a result the police were called and arrived a quarter of an hour later, followed by the divisional police surgeon Dr Angus Bain who got there around two in the morning.
The police recognised the body as being that of Maxwell Confait.
Originally from the Seychelles, the twenty-six year old Confait was of mixed race and known to the police as a homosexual prostitute and a transvestite who sometimes went by the name of 'Michelle'. In the circumstances the police surgeon decided not to take a rectal temperature reading (as was the standard practice in order to determine the time of death) as this might compromise any evidence relating to recent sexual activity. The pathologist Dr James Cameron took the same decision when he arrived, although he did take the trouble of examining the body and noted that it was cool and that rigor mortis had only just set. The post mortem examination concluded that Maxwell Confait had died from asphyxia, having been strangled by a length of white electric flex found in his room.
2. Winston Goode
Maxwell Confait had rented his bed-sit at Doggett Road from a West Indian gentleman by the name of Winston Goode. Both Confait and Goode had known each other for some time having first met at the Black Bull in Lewisham back in 1970, when the pair discovered they had a shared interest in wearing women's clothing. Apparently their friendship eventually led to the breakdown of Goode's marriage, although Goode's wife and his five children still lived at the house, together with two lodgers taking up the first floor, one of whom was Confait who had taken the room in February 1972.
On the night in question Winstone had claimed that he had been woken up by the fire and immediately raced to Catford Bridge railway station to raise the alarm. However it seems that his wife had been so disturbed by his wild-eyed demeanor at this time that she had sent a neighbour after him, which was just as well, because by the time Winston got to the railway station he was incapable of using the telephone and the neighbour made the call instead.
Winston was subsequently interviewed by the police on the Sunday, and he admitted that he knew that Confait was planning to leave Dogget Road and set up home with another man, and that he was jealous of this. However he denied any homosexual relationship with Confait. The police intended to re-interview him on the Monday, but by that time Winston Goode had suffered some kind of mental breakdown and claimed not to remember anything of the events over the weekend and was admitted to Bexley Psychiatric Hospital. He was later released and found work as a metal stripper in Catford before he commited suicide by taking cyanide in 1974.
3. The Three Boys
The police however soon lost interest in Winston Goode as on Monday 24th April that a rash of small fires were started in the area. One was on the railway line near Catford Bridge, another at a sports hut on Ladywell Fields, whilst the third was at a semi-derelict house at 1 Neigarde Road not far from Doggett Road. The police soon apprehended a teenager by the name of Colin Latimore who readily admitted that he was responsible for the fires in question. The police then very naturally asked him whether he knew anything about the fire at Doggett Road, at which point Latimore said that "I was with Ronnie. We lit it but put it out. It was smoking when we left."
The Ronnie in question was Ronald Leighton and when the police went to his house they also found an Ahmet Salih present, after which all three were taken to the local station and interviewed by Superintendent Alan Keith Jones and Detective Inspector Graham Stokwell, despite the fact that they were all underage and that this was in breach of the Judges' Rules. Later that day both Lattimore and Leighton signed statements confessing to the murder of Maxwell Confait, although in Salih's case his statement wasn't signed until the following day, the delay arising as a result of the necessity of acquiring a Turkish interpreter. Whereas Salih admitted that he'd been present when Confait was killed, he had not taken any part in the actual murder.
All three were initially charged with murder and appeared at Woolwich Magistrates court on the 2nd June 1972, when they were committed for trial at the Old Bailey. Both Leighton and Lattimore were held at Ashford Remand Centre, whilst Salih let out on bail, since the authorities had decided to drop the murder charge against him, leaving him to face charges of mere burglary and arson.
4. The Trial
The trial of the three boys opened at the Old Bailey on the 1st November 1972 with Mr Justice Chapman presiding and Robert du Cann appearing for the prosecution. The defence had enetered a plea of not guilty, as even though all three boys had confessed to taking part in the murder of Maxwell Confait, it was the defence's contention that these were false confessions. Indeed both Lattimore and Salih claimed that they had been assaulted by a Detective Constable Peter Woledge whilst Leighton claimed that he'd been pushed around as well. As it happens the defence wasn't worried, since medical evidence produced at the earlier hearing stated that Confait had died between 6.30pm and 10.30pm on the Friday, and all three boys had rock solid alibis for the period in question.
However to everyone's surprise the police surgeon and patholgist now claimed that Confait had died much later at 1.00 on the Saturday. Asked why they'd changed their evidence from that earlier given at Woolwich Magistrates court, they claimed that they had now taken account of the heat of the fire which they had initially failed to do. The defence then suffered a further blow when Mr Justice Chapman stopped them from making any references to the suspicious conduct of Winston Goode.
In consequence on the 24th November it took the jury three and half hours of deliberation to bring guilty verdicts against all three. Colin Latimore was found guilty of arson and of manslaughter, on the grounds of diminished responsibility, and was therefore ordered to be detained under the Mental Health Act and sent to Rampton Hospital; Ronnie Leighton was found guilty of both murder and arson, given a life sentence and sent to Aylesbury Prison; Ahmet Salih was found guilty of arson and burglary, sentenced to a four years youth custody and despatched to the Royal Philanthropic School in Redhill.
5. The Appeal
Altough the defence were refused leave to appeal on the 23rd July 1973, this wasn't quite the end of the matter as Colin's father, George Lattimore
was convinced of his innocence and began a campaign to have the conviction reversed. His allegations that his son had been assaulted by the police were considered by the Director of Public Prosecution
but no action was taken. He did however manage to persuade Carol Johnson
, the Member of Parliament for Lewisham South to support his campaign. Johnson tried to raise the matter with the Home Office
, but they weren't interested, although he did managed to enlist the support of the National Council for Civil Liberties
. The NCCL began running a campaign that enlisted the support of experts such as a Professor Donald Teare
, and also began to interest some in the media.
Eventually Thames Television featured the case in its documentary series This Week on Thursday 7th November 1974. This featured an interview with the same Professor Donald Teare who questioned the forensic conclusions put forward by the prosecution. It also put forward the case that although Colin Lattimore was eighteen years old, he had the mental age of eight, whilst the fifteen year old Ronnie Leighton had an IQ of only 75 and could barely read or write, and that Ahmet Salih despite being reasonably intelligent, was only fourteen years old at the time of the murder; thus raising the question of the validity of any confessions made by such youthful and mentally challenged individuals.
The General Election of February 1974 resulted in a change of administration with the Labour Party now in charge of the government. Christopher Price, the recently elected Member of Parliament for Lewisham West and a former journalist, took over from Carol Johnson and similarly called for an investigation into the alleged miscarriage of justice. He sent a copy of the Thames Television script to Alexander Lyon who was the Minister of State at the Home Office. This time round he found that the new Home Secretary Roy Jenkins was far more sympathetic than his predecessor, and on the 18th June 1975 he instructed that the case was sent back to the Court of Appeal.
The case of Regina v Lattimore and Others was eventually heard by the Lord Justice Scarman, Lord Justice Ormrod and Mr Justice Swanwick. On the 17th October 1975 the Appeal Court judges duly concluded that all three convictions were "unreliable in the light of expert evidence and so unsafe and unsatisactory". In particular they noted that the confessions all claimed that Confait had been killed shortly before the fire had been set, whereas the scientific evidence showed that Confait died sometime before 10.00pm on the Friday, whilst the fire had not been started until round 1.00am on the following morning. As a result the three were released and given an ex-gratia payment of £1,000 each. However this not the end of the matter, as although the original convictions had been quashed, they had not been formally declared innocent, and there in fact remained the possibility that they could face a retrial and even a reconviction.
6. The Inquiries
In the circumstances the Home Office called on Henry Fisher, the President of Wolfson College, Oxford to conduct an inquiry into the case. His inquiry was initially delayed in order to allow John Fryer, the Assistant Chief Constable of West Mercia Police to re-examine the police evidence. Fryer duly concluded that there was no evidence against any living person other than the three boys, and when Fisher finally produced his report in later 1977 he came to the conclusion that the balance of probability was that the three boys had started the fire, and that both Salih and Leighton were involved in the killing of Maxwell Confait. He also concluded that all the policemen involved in the case had behaved quite properly. He did however recommend that the police should in future tape record all interviews, and that confessions should only be accepted as evidence when they were supported by such recordings, confirmed that the police had breached the Judges' Rules during their questioning of the boys, and also criticised the way the case had been prepared by the prosecution.
These conclusions were naturally criticised in some quarters since they appeared to take no account of the fact that the Court of Appeal had already found that the scientific evidence clearly showed that Confait had died before 10pm on Friday the 21st April 1972, and that all three boys had alibis that clearly showed that they could not have carried out the murder. (Latimore for example, had twenty-three witnesses willing to testify that he was somewhere else at the time.) It was therefore not until 1980 that the Attorney-General Michael Havers finally announced that all three were exonerated, and noted that it had now been determined that Confait had died at least twelve hours before the fire had been started. In the following year the boys were finally compensated for their ordeal with Latimore being offered the sum of £25,000, Leighton £18,000 and Salih £22,000.
7. The Libel cases
In the meantime Christopher Price and Jonathan Caplan had collaborated in writing The Confait Confessions which was published by Marion Boyars in April 1977. In 1980 they were sued for libel by one of the policemen who'd interviewed the three boys. Former Superintendent Alan Keith Jones, who had retired form the force in 1977, complained that the book implied that he had given perjured evidence at the trial or that he was in some way guilty of corruption. He won an apology and a declaration form the defendants that they had no intention of implying that Jones had been in anyway corrupt.
Graham Stockwell, the other police officer who had been present at the original interviews, does not appear to have objected to the book, but three years later he sued the New Statesman for libel for an article written by the journalist Anna Coote. Stockwell, who by this time risen to head the Metropolitan Police Fraud Squad, objected to the fact that the article claimed that he had a "murky past", and alleged that he had deliberately falsified the statements given by the boys back in 1972, as well as having behaved in a similar fashion over the case of a fire in Deptford in 1981 which left thirteen people dead. He won an apology and damages when the case came to court in 1983.
Whether these successful libel actions can be seen as exonerating the police officers in question from any wrongdoing is a matter of opinion. One more recent source refers to Alan Keith Jones as the "bent copper responsible principally for setting up these three saps" which of course is one way of looking at things.
8. The Judges' Rules
The quashing of the convcitions and the eventual exoneration of all three original suspects in the Maxwell Confait murder kicked off a whole public debate about the nature of the Judges' Rules. What they actually said in his case was that; "As far as practicable, children (whether suspected of a crime or not) should only be interviewed in the presence of a parent or guardian, or, in their absence, some person who is not a police officer and is of the same sex as the child". (Notably the rules said nothing at all about questioning suspects of low intelligence.) Now although this and the other rules had been affirmed by Home Office Circular, they were simply administrative guidelines and had no force of law, and indeed were widely ignored by the police in practice, as they knew that the courts very rarely rejected any evidence they had obtained in breach of said rules. Clearly in the case of Latimore, Leighton and Salih the judge at the Old Bailey had paid little heed to the fact that the Judges' Rules had been breached, entirely false confessions had been accepted into evidence as a result, and a miscarriage of justice of resulted.
The issue was kept alive by the broadcast of a seventy-five minute reconstruction of the case on BBC2 on the 14th November 1981, under the title Rules of Justice, which was immediately followed by a televised debate conducted by Nick Ross and featuring Patricia Hewitt of the NCCL as well as a former Attorney-General. The whole Confait murder case therefore became one of the main inspirations behind the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which replaced the Judges' Rules with statutory provisions and also adopted Henry Fisher's earlier recommendations of making the tape-recording of police interviews compulsory.
Incidentally, although various rumours have circulated over the years, and an occasional arrest has been made, the murder of Maxwell Confait remains unsolved to this day.
The basic story of the Maxwell Confait Murder is covered by Theresa Murphy, in The Old Bailey (Mainstream Publising, 1999). Some information was also taken from the online articles;
Alexander Baron, Two Genuinely Controversial Cases Of Ram's Trial Judge http://www.geocities.com/satpalramisguilty/ram_harry_ognall.html
Richard Webster, The new injustices
but much of it is sourced from the contemporary newspaper reports from The Times newspaper.