LONDON – Britain’s Court of Appeal has exonerated three Black men who were convicted of robbery nearly 50 years ago, the latest in a series of cases that have been overturned because they relied on the testimony of a corrupt police officer who later died in prison.
The court on Monday quashed the convictions of Courtney Harriot, Paul Green and Cleveland Davidson, who were aged between 17 and 20 when they were accused of trying to rob a plainclothes detective on a London Underground train. The men always maintained their innocence and claimed that they were framed by the officer before his career ended in disgrace.
“It is most unfortunate that it has taken nearly 50 years to rectify the injustice suffered by these appellants,” Judge Julian Flaux said.
The case is one of several involving questionable arrests of Black men in the 1970s by a British Transport Police unit run by the late Detective Sgt. Derek Ridgewell. While a 1973 BBC investigation suggested Ridgewell was corrupt, the government ignored calls to re-examine his cases. The Court of Appeal took up the case late last year after it was referred by a commission set up to investigate miscarriages of justice.
Harriot, Green and Davidson were among six men who were arrested by Ridgewell’s team in 1972 near the Stockwell Underground station. The men, now in their late 60s, became known as the “Stockwell Six.’’
At their trial, the men pleaded not guilty, arguing that Ridgewell and his team subjected them to violence and made them sign statements admitting to robbery, according to their attorneys.
Amid the controversy over his methods, Ridgewell was transferred to a unit investigating mailbag theft. In 1980 he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal mailbags and was sentenced to seven years in prison. He died in prison in 1982.
“While the acquittal of these innocent men is welcome news, it is deeply troubling that it has taken so long to happen,’’ said Jenny Wiltshire of Hickman & Rose Solicitors. “These men’s entire adult lives have been blighted by false allegations made by a corrupt police officer known to have been dishonest for decades.”
Harriot was sentenced to three years in prison and Davidson to six months. Green, who was 17 at the time, was sent to a juvenile detention facility. Their efforts to appeal at the time were rejected.
Outside the Royal Courts of Justice, Davidson lamented that a single encounter with a corrupt officer should have “ruined'' his life.
“We were only young then,'' he said. “We did nothing.”
The process that led to the convictions being overturned began in 2018, when the Court of Appeal exonerated Stephen Simmons, whom Ridgewell had arrested for mailbag theft. Simmons filed his appeal after finding information about Ridgewell on the internet.
The Criminal Cases Review Commission referred Harriot and Green’s cases to the Court of Appeal in December and Davidson’s case in March. The commission is still trying to locate the two remaining members of the Stockwell Six.
One member of the group was acquitted during the original trial when evidence showed he wasn’t able to read well enough to understand the confession he had signed.
The Court of Appeal in 2019 and 2020 overturned the convictions of another group of Black men who had been arrested by Ridgewell’s anti-mugging unit. The men became known as the “Oval Four” after they were arrested near the Oval Underground station in 1972.
The British Transport Police on Monday apologized for the “distress, anxiety and impact” that the Ridgewell cases “will have undoubtedly caused those who were wrongly convicted.’′
“We have examined all available records which suggest that (Derek) Ridgewell was the principal officer in other investigations and have not identified any additional matters that we feel should be referred for external review,” the force said.
Davidson isn't so certain. After the hearing, he wondered aloud how many others might have been “stitched up'' by Ridgewell.
“We got justice today, but it has not put it right,'' he said. “How can it?''