The wrongful confession of man accused of killing Nikki Allan that changed policing forever

Police experts say that the wrongful confession of a man accused of Nikki Allan's murder in Sunderland in 1992 forced policing to change forever.

In 1993, George Heron, 23, was arrested and accused with murdering seven-year-old Nikki Allan.

The schoolgirl was lured from the Wear Garth Estate to the Old Exchange Building where she was beaten with a brick and stabbed 37 times.

Mr Heron was interviewed by police for three days, denying killing Nikki more than 120 times before confessing.

When the case went to trial at Leeds Crown Court in 1993, the judge ruled the confession inadmissible - saying it was obtained by heavy handed police tactics.

The judge, Mr Justice Mitchell, said the police questioning was "oppressive" and therefore made the confession "unreliable". He added, the tapes contained "gratuitous questions about Heron's sex life" as well as repeated assertions of his guilt.

Without the confession, the prosecution's evidence was circumstantial and the jury found George Heron not guilty.

A judge ruled his confession "inadmissible", saying it was obtained by heavy handed police tactics. Credit: NNP

Professor Gary Shaw, of the University of Sunderland's Centre for Crime, Policing and Investigations, said the result of this case was a catalyst for change in police interview techniques.

He said: "Because of years and years of people being brought up on confession based culture, to try and change people's approaches to interviewing was quite a challenge. What the George Heron interviews did, made any doubters sit up and take notice."

"Because assumptions of guilt had been made, people thought 'well he's committed the crime' the rest of the interview was really focused on, 'how do we get George Heron to admit the offence?'."

Professor Gary Shaw was involved in training officers in the new interview techniques. Credit: ITV Tyne Tees

"The interview just kept on and on and on. Trying to say it would be better for him if he was going to tell the truth, explaining that the police had evidence which was misrepresented and a continual bombardment of the fact that 'we believe you've done it'."

As a result of the judge's decision in 1993, eight recommendations were made to Northumbria Police at the time, focusing on new interview training which would be used to formulate future national guidelines.

Those new guidelines became the PEACE model for police interviewing - a strategy that is now used in current policing.

What is PEACE?

PEACE is an acronym and stands for Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate.

It is a non-accusatory interview technique designed to develop sufficient investigative information to determine the suspect's possible involvement in the criminal behaviour under investigation.

It involves much more conversation between the interviewer and suspect, working to establish a full account of events rather than focusing on a confession.

Former crime reporter for The Journal, Dani Garavelli, was in court when Mr Heron was found not guilty.

She said: "The foreman stood up and he said 'not guilty' and obviously the public gallery just erupted. Relatives and friends were screaming 'we'll kill you' and they screamed 'he confessed'.

"At that point the jury heard that he'd confessed and they were crying. There was five men and five women and half of them were just sobbing because, from their perspective, all they'd heard was he'd confessed and, to them, they'd just acquitted a guilty man."

After he was acquitted, George Heron no longer felt safe living in the North East of England and fled the region. He now lives under a new identity.

On 12 May 2023, David Boyd - a neighbour of George Heron's and Nikki Allan's - was found guilty of her murder. On 23 May, he was jailed for a minimum of 29 years.

David Boyd, 55, was found guilty of Nikki's murder 31 years later. Credit: Northumbria Police

George Heron submitted a victim impact statement as part of the trial at Newcastle Crown Court where he said he "lost what little honour and property" he had as a result of being falsely accused and said he had to read and hear "malicious lies" being spread about him and his family.

He added: “Moving around several times and trying to rebuild what is left of my life hasn’t been easy – learning to trust anyone is difficult and I haven’t even felt that I could trust in any professional to get help. I have had to learn how to adapt on my own.

“Trusting the police has taken a long time – they still make me nervous to the point of feeling nauseous if I am alone with them.”

Following the conviction, Northumbria Police wrote a letter to Mr Heron, apologising for "mistakes" that were made in the investigation.

The letter from Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Stewart said: "I have had the opportunity to read your Victim’s Impact Statement and appreciate the effects of your arrest, charge and trial had on you and continue to have.

"On behalf of Northumbria Police, I would like to apologise for the mistakes that were made in the investigation and I hope, as you express in your statement, that the conviction of Mr Boyd will finally bring closure on this matter for you and allow you to move on with your life."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...