Three black men who were convicted nearly 50 years ago on the evidence of a corrupt police officer have finally had their names cleared by senior judges.
Winston Trew, Sterling Christie, now both 69, and George Griffiths, now 67, were arrested – along with Constantine “Omar” Boucher – at Oval Underground station in 1972 by police who accused them of stealing handbags.
The patrol that arrested them, which was set up to target thefts on the Northern line and was known as “the mugging squad”, was led by Detective Sergeant Derek Ridgewell who was later jailed for seven years for conspiracy to steal.
The “Oval Four”, as they became known, were convicted of attempted theft and assaulting police, and Mr Christie was also found guilty of theft of a handbag, following a five-week trial at the Old Bailey.
All four were jailed for two years, later reduced to eight months on appeal.
But Mr Trew, Mr Christie and Mr Griffiths’ cases were referred to the Court of Appeal by the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) earlier this year after another conviction involving Ridgewell was overturned last January.
Mr Boucher’s conviction was not referred as the CCRC has been unable to trace him.
The Lord Chief Justice Lord Burnett – sitting with Mrs Justice McGowan and Sir Roderick Evans – quashed the three men’s convictions at a brief hearing in London on Thursday.
Lord Burnett said there was “an accumulating body of evidence that points to the fundamental unreliability of evidence given by DS Ridgewell … and others of this specialist group”.
The judge said it was “clear that these convictions are unsafe”, adding: “We would wish only to note our regret that it has taken so long for this injustice to be remedied.”
In a statement after the hearing, Mr 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.”
Mr 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.”
His and Mr Griffiths’ solicitor Jenny Wiltshire of Hickman & Rose welcomed the decision, but said it was “deeply concerning that it has taken so long to happen”.
She added: “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 to 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.”
Ridgewell was involved in a number of high-profile and controversial cases in the early 1970s culminating in the 1973 acquittals of the “Tottenham Court Road Two” – two young Jesuits studying at Oxford University.
He was then moved into a department investigating mailbag theft, where he joined up with two criminals with whom he split the profits of stolen mailbags.
Ridgewell was eventually caught and jailed for seven years, dying of a heart attack in prison in 1982 at the age of 37.
Mr Christie’s lawyer Steven Bird of Birds Solicitors said: “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.”
Last January, Stephen Simmons’ 1976 conviction for stealing mailbags was quashed after he discovered Ridgewell was later jailed for a similar offence just two years after his own conviction.