Page last updated at 15:53 GMT, Tuesday, 8 January 2008

A new type of supergrass?

By Chris Summers
BBC News

Two years ago the government introduced new laws which they said would encourage more people to turn "supergrass" and give evidence against crime's bigger fish. Martin Brown is one such informant.

Scene of the doorstep shooting
John Ward was shot on the doorstep of this house

On the evening of 21 March 2006 three men knocked on the door of a house in the Essex village of St Osyth and asked for Stuart Higgins.

Higgins came to the door but soon realised the men had come to do him harm. He tried to close the door but one of the men shoved his foot inside.

In the ensuing melee a shotgun went off and Higgins' friend, John Ward, 22, suffered a fatal wound to the throat.

Ward, a convicted drug dealer, was the son of Gary Ward, who was on remand at the time accused of conspiracy to import 35 kilos of heroin - he was later acquitted.

Fled to Spain

One of the killers, Peter Jones, fled to Spain and laid low along with another man, David Taylor.

It was Taylor, a convicted robber, who had ordered Jones and two other men to go to the house and seek some form of retribution from Higgins, who had earlier threatened Taylor's teenage son over a 250 debt.

(Left to right) Martin Valentine, Peter Jones, David Taylor
Martin Valentine, 43, from South Ockendon, Essex
Peter Jones, 40, from Chelmsford, Essex
David Taylor, 40, from Colchester, Essex

In May this year, with three men already on trial at the Old Bailey for murder - Jones and Taylor were arrested in Spain and brought back to the UK.

The jury was dismissed and all five men then went on trial.

Higgins gave evidence at the first trial, but by the time the retrial came around he had got himself into such a state that he wrote a letter to the judge begging not to give evidence and claiming to be "suicidal".

Higgins, who was by then already in jail serving a short sentence for an unrelated offence, was held in contempt of court and was jailed for six months.

That left the prosecution reliant on Martin Brown, a supergrass who had done a deal under the 2005 Serious and Organised Crime Act.

He was originally charged with murder but the charge was dropped and he instead pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of assisting an offender. He was sentenced to six months in prison but was released immediately.

Judge David Paget QC said what would otherwise have been a "very lenient sentence" was handed out with a view to Brown's circumstances.

"He has had to move home. His parents have had to sell their house and he will have to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life," said the judge.

He [Brown] has had to move home. His parents have had to sell their house and he will have to look over his shoulder for the rest of his life
Judge David Paget QC

Brown, who had helped drive the gang to and from the house, told the trial he believed the men were simply going to have a word with Higgins who had been "out of order".

Asked what his reaction was when he heard a shot and saw one of the men holding the gun, he said: "My heart sank. I was scared."

The defence barristers sought to undermine Brown's evidence but the jury ultimately believed he was telling the truth.

Jones, Taylor, and Martin Valentine were convicted of murder and jailed for life.

John Ward
John Ward was not the man the gang had targeted

Two other men, 29-year-old Steven Walker and Vishnu Bhaskaran, 28, were cleared by the Old Bailey jury.

John Dodd QC, prosecuting, made it clear in his opening that the Crown believed Valentine, a convicted robber, had pulled the trigger.

But right at the start of the trial Dorian Lovell-Pank QC, counsel for Jones, said: "John Ward died from one shot fired by a sawn-off shotgun fired at close range. The man holding the gun was Peter Jones."

Mr Lovell-Pank went on to claim the gun went off unexpectedly and the recoil injured his client's wrist.

'Revenge fear'

He said his client was "shocked and sickened" when he learned later that Ward had died and Jones fled the country.

Mr Lovell-Pank said Jones "was afraid of what the Ward family and their friends might do in way of revenge".

A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said the case was a successful use of the new powers under the Serious and Organised Crime Act.

He said the use of Brown was very different from the use of Darren Nicholls, a drug dealer who testified to being the getaway driver for two men later jailed for life for the murder of three Essex drug dealers in a Range Rover at Rettendon, near Chelmsford.

"In that case Nicholls was giving what is known as Queen's Evidence. But in this case everything was open and above board," said the CPS spokesman.

The two men in jail for the Rettendon murders, Jack Whomes and Mick Steele, continue to maintain their innocence and insist Nicholls lied.

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