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Monday, 17 July, 2000, 15:47 GMT 16:47 UK
The trials of the M25 three
Traffic on M25 motorway
Robberies took place close to the M25 motorway
by Jane Peel, BBC Home Affairs Correspondent

In the space of just a few hours one night in December 1988 a series of brutal attacks took place.

Three armed robberies were carried out by men wearing balaclavas at different locations in Surrey close to the M25 motorway.
The first of the attacks ended in murder.

Three robbers armed with a gun and a knife dragged two men from a car.

One of them, 57-year-old Peter Hurburgh, was tied up, beaten and gagged. He died of a heart attack.

In the early hours of the morning the robbers struck twice more - breaking into two homes, stealing jewellery and assaulting the occupants.

m25 murder accussed Randolph Johnston
Randolph Johnston : convicted

One man who fought back was stabbed and seriously wounded.

The robbers escaped using their victims' cars.

They were horrific attacks which resulted in national publicity and the offer of a substantial reward.

Within days the police had made a number of arrests.

Charged

Eventually three black men were charged with the murder and robberies - Raphael Rowe, Michael Davis and Randolph Johnson.

They were found guilty by a jury at the Old Bailey in 1990 and sentenced to life imprisonment, but their convictions have always been controversial.

This is not least because four of the five surviving victims originally told police that one or two of their attackers were white.

M25 accussed Raphael Rowe
Raphael Rowe: sentenced to life

One of them went so far as to say that one attacker had fair hair and "I seem to remember he had blue eyes".

White skin had also been seen through the eyeholes of a balaclava.
By the time these witnesses came to give evidence at the trial of three black men, their recollections had become somewhat hazy.

They could no longer be sure the assailants were white.

The M25-three, as they became known, were convicted, despite the absence of any identification or confession evidence, or any scientific evidence linking them to the scenes of the crimes.

There was considerable evidence, however, connecting them to property stolen from the robberies.

In fact, there was enough evidence to persuade the Court of Appeal to uphold the convictions when they were first challenged in 1993.

So what has changed in the seven years since?

New Evidence

Significant new evidence not available to the defence either at trial or the first appeal has since emerged.

The Criminal Cases Review Commission - the body tasked with investigating possible wrongful convictions - was asked to look into the case. It uncovered something which caused concern.

It appeared that during the trial one of the jurors had engaged in a bit of his own investigative work. He had visited key locations.

It was not clear why. However, the time taken to travel from one location to another was an important issue at the trial.

The juror's actions raised the possibility, at least, of the verdicts being decided not on evidence heard in court, but on information the defendants had had no opportunity to challenge.

M25 Murder accussed Michael Davis
Michael Davis: conviction controversial

There was another startling revelation - this time about one of the prosecution's key witnesses, who the defence said at trial was probably implicated in the crimes himself.

He was Norman Duncan - who had a criminal record.

He had admitted disposing of two of the cars used in the robberies but he was never prosecuted.

What the defence discovered about Norman Duncan was that he was a paid police informant, who had received a 10,000 reward for information which led to the arrests and convictions.

It was also discovered that before he gave evidence in this case, the police had spoken on his behalf when he appeared in court on another matter.

Defence lawyers said this went to the heart of his credibility as a witness.

But this information was withheld from the defence at the trial and the first appeal.

Prosecution lawyers at the trial had known an informant was involved, but even they didn't know it was Duncan, whose evidence implicated Rowe, Davis and Johnson.

European ruling

In February this year, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg unanimously held that the failure to disclose this evidence to the defendants had denied them a fair trial.

With this new information, the M25-three still had some way to go to persuade the court to quash their convictions at their second appeal, held over nine days in June 2000.

The Crown was arguing that the convictions remained safe - the case against them was a powerful one and the jury had reached a logical conclusion on the evidence.

In the end the three judges decided the convictions had to be quashed.

For the first time in 11 and a half years, Raphael Rowe, Michael Davis and Randolph Johnson were free men.

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14 Jul 00 | UK
'M25 Three' appeal due
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