Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Wednesday, 22 February 2006

'Essex boys' murder appeal fails

Michael Steele and Jack Whomes
Michael Steele and Jack Whomes are both serving life for murder

Two men serving life for the "Essex Boys" gangland murders have lost an appeal against their conviction.

Michael Steele, 64, and Jack Whomes, 45, received life sentences for the triple killing in Rettendon in 1995.

Steele, of Great Bentley, Essex, and Whomes, of Brockford, Suffolk, were jailed for killing Patrick Tate, Anthony Tucker and Craig Rolfe.

The trial became known as the Essex Boys case after it inspired a film of that name starring Sean Bean.

'Corrupt judgment'

Lawyers had argued a media deal struck by "supergrass" witness Darren Nicholls made his evidence at the 1998 Old Bailey trial unreliable.

They said Mr Nicholls had entered into arrangements under which he was to be paid for his story and that he had a financial incentive in their being found guilty.

But three appeal judges rejected an argument that the jury might have reached a different verdict if it had known of Mr Nicholls's media contacts.

Rettendon Range Rover
Anthony Tucker, Patrick Tate and Craig Rolfe died in a Range Rover
Lord Justice Kay concluded that there was "no element of unsafety" in any of the convictions.

However, he did admit the defence had material which enabled them to present Nicholls to the jury as a time-served criminal of some sophistication, a drug-trafficker and a man with a corrupt relationship with a police officer.

The jury nevertheless remained unanimous in their confidence in the essentials of his account.

An Essex Police spokesman said he was "pleased" that there was no criticism of the force in the court judgment.

This is the most corrupt judgment I have ever heard in all my life
Michael Steele, convicted murderer

Det Supt Kevin Macey said: "The trial and subsequent appeals have shown that the original investigation was sound and robust.

"The jury heard all the evidence in great detail and concluded these men were guilty. The court of appeal has now heard all the evidence in great detail and come to the same conclusion."

As the decision was announced, Steele shouted from the dock: "This is the most corrupt judgment I have ever heard in all my life."

He called to police in the court: "You are a corrupt lot and we will be back. You won't always have the bench there to protect you."

Defence counsel Baroness Kennedy QC said an application would be made later for permission to appeal to the House of Lords.

Gangland dispute

"The court's judgment has come as something of a surprise to the defence," she said.

The defence had accused police of facilitating Mr Nicholls's meetings with media contacts while he was being held in protective custody.

However, the judges - Lord Justice Maurice Kay, Sir Charles Mantell and Mr Justice Openshaw - did not criticise the conduct of the police.

Whilst I live and breathe and represent Michael Steele I will fight to ensure that he does not die in prison for offences he did not commit
Chris Bowen
Steele's solicitor

Andrew Munday QC, for the Crown, said detailed statements from Mr Nicholls had already been taken and recorded in full before he had meetings with a reporter and a literary agent.

Steele and Whomes were convicted after the three victims were shot dead in a Range Rover on an isolated farm track in December 1995 in a gangland dispute over drugs.

Steele's solicitor, Chris Bowen, said: "Whilst I live and breathe and represent Michael Steele I will fight to ensure that he does not die in prison for offences he did not commit.

"Mr Steele himself will never admit these offences because he did not commit them. He has always protested his innocence and will continue to do so."

Mr Bowen said his legal team was preparing to challenge the ruling in the House of Lords and he indicated they might fight it in the European courts.

"Europe may provide a crucial key to unlock the door to freedom. The campaign for Mr Steele and Mr Whomes will continue to grow - a new front is about to open."

SEE ALSO
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