by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (March 24th 2012)
Two days after Maxwell Confaitʼs body was discovered in April 1972 three fires got the policeʼs attention. They arrested 18-year-old Colin Lattimore. He quickly confessed to setting the fires with Ronald Leighton, then 15. 14-year-old Ahmet Salih was also arrested. Although Lattimore was 18 he had the IQ of an eight-year-old. All three were or should have been considered children in need of every protection the law had to offer. Lattimore quickly implicated his friends Leighton and Salih.
Contrary to the law even four decades ago, the children were interviewed without appropriate adults being present and claim that they were hit by police officers. They all confessed to arson at Doggett Road and other fires, Lattimore to the murder and Salih and Leighton to a robbery as well. Salih insisted that he was present, but had not taken part in the murder. They retracted their confessions, but it counted for nothing.
Rule of Thumb
All three claimed to have been the victims of police violence, but this occurred in the days when interviews were recorded by contemporaneous notes – the accuracy of which had to be taken on trust. Time would eventually prove that trust to be sadly misplaced in many cases illustrating the need for tape-recording or better still video-recording interviews.
A rule of thumb would be only those with something to hide could object to the recording of interviews. Recording of interviews, not only with suspects, but also witnesses is commonplace now and rightly so. It not only protects suspects or witnesses, but police from spurious accusations of malpractice. But it still needs an integrated approach to investigation, as forensic sciences can affect case-hypotheses. In this case it plainly would have done, but for a crass error by the Crownʼs pathologist Professor James Cameron.
Teare was adamant that Confaitʼs death could not have occurred later than 10.30 on April 21st. Simpson agreed with Teare. They were right and they were wrong. Maxwell Confait did not die later than 10.30 that night. He died at least two days previously, so they were proved to be badly wrong, but that came later.
Nevertheless, the ʻmistakenʼ opinions of Teare and Simpson proved enough to result in a successful appeal as the new timings that they provided destroyed the case that the police had brought against the three young men they rushed to convict. It would later become clear that the forensic pathologists had got it hopelessly wrong.
The original pathologists had wrongly assumed that rigour mortis was just beginning after the fire. In fact, it had almost passed. Death had occurred over 48 hours earlier. The discolouration of organs supported that conclusion – something that experienced forensic pathologists Cameron, Teare and Simpson should never have missed.
Professors Alan Usher and Keith Mant opined that that due to organ discolouration death had occurred over 48 hours before the fire. They reached those conclusions for the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure. The fiasco over the timing of death had set the investigation down the wrong path and made a complete mockery of that investigation.
The fire was an enormous red herring. In fact, it was far worse. It may just explain the remarkable change of opinion of Professor Cameron as well. His original opinion suggested a likely time of death hours early than the one he sprang on the defence without warning at trial, but the original time posed serious problems for the police and prosecution.
His original opinion meant that the murderers had waited around for around three hours at least after killing Confait before starting the fire. That was utterly absurd. Why would anyone commit a murder, then wait around the scene for around three hours before deciding to start a fire there? If they had not done that then the subsequent fires evidence that Colin Lattimore and later Ronald Leighton and Ahmet Salih were arrested over was irrelevant and the police and prosecution must have known that this rendered their case-hypothesis ludicrous long before it came to trial and resulted in shameful convictions.
Despite investigations and a Royal Commission the conduct of the criminal justice system which allowed such a change of opinion to prejudice the Catford Threeʼs right to a fair trial yet again escaped censure for that (see Ambushed). It wasnʼt the only thing that the trial and appeal process got wrong – hopelessly wrong in fact.