Two Genuinely Controversial Cases
Of Ram’s Trial Judge

The judge in Regina v Ram, Mr Justice Ognall, has a reputation for fairness, which can’t be said of all judges towards defendants (as I know from personal experience!). It was Mr Justice Ognall who threw out the case against Colin Stagg in 1994. And thirteen and a half years earlier, it was Mr Justice Ognall who as a QC defended Bruce Lee, the Hull arsonist. I remember this latter case very well, because I was actually present in the courtroom when Lee was sentenced.

According to his entry in Who’s Who, 2001, Sir Harry Ognall was born January 9, 1934, called to the Bar in 1958, took silk in 1973, and was a Recorder from 1972 until 1986, when he was made a judge of the High Court.

Returning to the two controversial cases, I will deal with the Stagg case first. Colin Stagg was the victim of a bizarre entrapment operation by the Metropolitan Police.

In July 1992, in one of those terrible senseless murders which periodically shock the nation, a young mother named Rachel Nickell was stabbed to death on London’s Wimbledon Common in broad daylight. The crime was all the more horrific because she was killed in front of her two year old son, who mercifully was spared. He became the only meaningful living witness, but understandably not much information could be extracted from him. (1)

As is usually the case in such high profile murders, the police had to follow up many lines of inquiry, but none of them appeared to be taking them anywhere. Eventually, probably out of desperation, they zeroed in on Colin Stagg, a lonely, sexually inexperienced local man whose pastimes included Paganism.

Stagg was an unlikely suspect, not least because he was slightly built, and usually ventured onto the common to walk his dog. After his first arrest, Stagg was initially released without charge, but after hearing from a woman who’d had some “lonely heart” correspondence with him, the police used an undercover policewoman to try to hoodwink him into confessing to the murder with the promise of sex.

The operation, which lasted eight months, was called off when Stagg gave an interview to a tabloid newspaper denying emphatically that he had murdered Rachel Nickell. But the police and CPS went ahead with the case anyway. Stagg was re-arrested, charged with the murder, and spent thirteen months on remand on the basis of evidence obtained from him by the police, evidence which they had given to him during the course of his earlier questioning. But when the case came to court, after hearing pre-trial submissions, Mr Justice Ognall ruled that “A careful appraisal of the material demonstrates a skilful and sustained enterprise to manipulate the accused, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly.” (2)

As usual, the police refused to concede that they were wrong, hinting as they usually do that an obviously guilty man had escaped retribution on a technicality. One senior officer, Deputy Commissioner Sir John Smith, actually went so far as to claim that: “There has never been any suggestion by the courts that any police officers cheated, or lied, or falsified evidence”. (3)

So a policewoman who liaises with a suspect using a false identity and tries to lure him into confessing to a murder by making lurid and untrue confessions of her own has not cheated or lied? Give me a break.

The murder of Rachel Nickell has remained unsolved to this day, although Colin Stagg was far from the only suspect; a new line of inquiry was revived some time later, but nothing came of it.

[This last sentence is no longer true – click here for explanation.]

The case of Bruce Lee was in its way even more controversial than the Rachel Nickell case, not only because of the gravity of his crimes but because of the developments which occurred after his conviction, although surprisingly, few people today have heard of him. In 1999, the investigating officer, Ron Sagar, published a book on the case which has set the record straight. (4)

In December 1979, the home of the Hastie family in Selby Street, Hull, was torched, and eventually three of the Hastie’s sons were to die as a result of the fire. The Hasties, Tommie (5) and Edith, were unpopular with their neighbours – to put it mildly – and there was no shortage of suspects. (6)

One of these suspects, though not a particularly strong one, was a youth named Bruce Lee. In the summer of 1979, Lee had changed his name by deed poll from Peter Dinsdale to Bruce George Peter Lee, after Bruce Lee the immortal martial artist. (7) He was also known less flatteringly as Daft Peter. (8) Lee had grown up in care, and was a homosexual who preyed on younger boys offering them money in return for perverted sex. (9)

He was not arrested until the following June, but when he was questioned by the police he admitted freely to starting the fire; he also admitted to corrupting one of the Hastie boys. (10) This would have suited Sagar fine, but disturbingly, over a period of time, Lee continued to confess to setting other fires until he had admitted to killing no less than twenty-six people, including eleven elderly men at a home called Wensley Lodge in January 1977. The Wensley Lodge fire had obviously been thoroughly investigated at the time, but arson had been ruled out.

Sagar didn’t know how much of Lee’s confessions to believe; it was possible that he had been put up to it by another inmate while he was on remand, or that he’d had second thoughts and was trying to undermine his voluntary confession to the Hastie fire by acting out the role of a serial confessor. Lee had a low IQ, but nothing could be ruled out. Sagar commented that when he visited Lee on remand, Lee talked about killing people as though he were swatting flies.

Of Lee’s confessions, Sagar wrote “Under caution again, Lee dictated another statement saying his solicitor had told him to make a statement contradicting what he had already admitted.” (11) Lee declined repeatedly to retract his confessions. His main concern seems to have been to work his ticket to one of the Special Hospitals. He got his wish; he was charged with twenty-six counts of murder, but at what was supposed to be a pre-trial review in chambers at Leeds Crown Court he pleaded guilty to manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, (this is where I came in!).

At the time of Lee’s trial in January 1981, the most notorious killer in England was the Yorkshire Ripper. Peter Sutcliffe (12) was eventually to be convicted of thirteen murders and seven attempted murders, but as Sagar pointed out, Lee had killed twenty-six people, exactly twice as many as the Yorkshire Ripper, but most people had never heard of him. (13)

But Lee’s case didn’t end there. Due to his low IQ, the astounding nature of his confessions, and some muckraking by the Sunday Times, serious doubts were cast on both the validity of his confessions and more importantly for Sagar on the methodology of the investigation, and on his own character. In particular he was accused of verballing Lee up and of pressurising an important eyewitness to change his evidence. (14)

In spite of Lee’s confessions, the case was referred to the Court of Appeal, where Lee gave evidence for the first time. (15) It is difficult to know what to make of any of Lee’s confessions, although there is independent evidence that he started the Selby Street fire.

Lee’s affidavit in support of his application for leave to appeal – which was long out of time – is dated October 29, 1982, and was clearly not written by him. (16) The application was actually filed June 9, 1982. (17)

Harry Ognall QC represented Lee at the appeal as well as at the trial, and he obviously had some difficulty with the case. It is certainly a novel case where an accused insists that he is guilty and his solicitors believe him to be totally innocent.

Prior to his trial, Lee is said to have told Sagar (on November 12, 1980): “...I’m going to plead not guilty see ’cause I understand there’s a chance if I deny it and act a bit daft I might get into a mental home, that’ll be better than a stinking prison, and anyway I might get away with it all.” (18)

In spite of Ognall’s unhappiness with his instructions, psychiatrists had found Lee fit to plead, so what else could he do? Lee’s decision to change his plea at the last minute meant that the case against him on the various indictments was not tested. The Court of Appeal sought to rectify that.

The final judgment in Regina v Lee was strongly worded. One by one the Court of Appeal upheld the various convictions, but when it came to the Wensley Lodge fire, Lord Justice Ackner said it had “a lingering doubt” stating clearly that “We wish to make it clear that we are far from being satisfied that he did not set Wensley Lodge on fire”. (19)

After the quashing of this conviction, Ognall withdrew his application for leave in respect of two indictments, and it was dismissed. (20)

The Court of Appeal also had some strong words for the Sunday Times: “these serious allegations were without any valid foundation and should never have been made”. (21)

The paper was unrepentant, and said after the appeal that it saw no reason to apologise to anyone, reiterating that Lee should not have been questioned without a social worker being present. (22)

Sagar sued the paper for libel and it fought the case until late 1987 when it threw in the towel, and it was announced that Sagar and a colleague had received “substantial damages” and an apology. (23)

What are we to make of this? I know from my own experience and to my own cost that police officers are just about the biggest liars on Earth, but journalists aren’t exactly renowned for their veracity either. Certainly the Sunday Times exaggerated some aspects of the case. It may have been true that Lee was the 19th homosexual that Sagar accused of setting the Selby Street fire, (24) but it is not true that at the trial, Ognall spoke for less than a minute, (25) at least not in my recollection. The prosecution opened in the morning; I heard the news on the radio, and when I turned up at Leeds Crown Court, I saw the defence barrister speak for several minutes at least. Other allegations regarding timings were of course far more serious. But even allowing for so-called journalistic licence, although Sagar was vindicated by the libel action, so was the paper, not by the outcome of the appeal, but in the concerns it raised for the way suspects of low intelligence are handled.

One of the points made by the Sunday Times was that Lee stood in the Guinness Book Of Records as Britain’s biggest mass killer. This was indeed the case: he is listed at page 219 of the 1982 edition; the following year the retraction of his confession is reported ; the date of this retraction is given as March 14, 1982 (the date of the Sunday Times article!) It is not until the 1985 edition that mention is made of the quashing of Lee’s conviction for eleven murders (ie the Wensley Lodge fire).

Interestingly, listed alongside Lee as Britain’s most prolific mass killers were the Birmingham Six (including Paddy Hill) who were convicted of 21 murders, and another Irish terrorist case, that of Judith Ward. All seven eventually had their convictions quashed.

Endemic corruption aside, every case must be judged on its merits, and Sagar’s account in Hull, Hell And Fire has the ring of truth. It is standard practice when someone confesses to a crime, especially one of this seriousness, for the police to ask if he wants any other offences to be taken into consideration. (26) Sagar may have believed that his suspect had indeed started other fires, but he cannot have imagined in his wildest dreams that Lee would confess on such a grand scale.

Just as Ognall was unhappy with his instructions (because Lee kept changing his story) so too was Sagar unhappy with the extent of his suspect’s confessions. Consider the facts: Lee was born in Manchester in 1960; his mother was a prostitute, and he had grown up largely in care. (27) He was said to have an IQ of only 68. (28)

According to a standard work on mental disorder, Lee fell just inside the band which labels one mentally retarded. The American Psychiatric Association says that mild mental retardation (50-55 to approximately 70) is about equivalent to the category known previously as “educable”, and that such adults can usually live in the community with some supervision or support. (29)

The mere fact that a man is mentally retarded does not mean that he cannot lie convincingly, or that he cannot commit acts of extreme depravity and escape justice. Howard Hughes, who kidnapped, abused and murdered a young girl named Sophie Hook, also had a low IQ, but he was intelligent enough to shave his pubic hair before the murder, wash the jacket he’d worn at the time, and dump the girl’s body in the sea to destroy forensic evidence. (30)

Just as disturbing as Lee’s low IQ were the facts that he was not quite thirteen years old when he committed his first murder, (31) and that none of the previous fires had been recorded as arson. (32) The public inquiry into the Wensley Lodge fire had been nothing if not thorough; it had lasted thirteen days, and arson had been completely ruled out. (33) Sagar was not a glory seeker, nor was he attempting to improve his clear up statistics by the practice of “nodding”. (34)

In spite of the Court of Appeal’s expressed doubts when quashing Lee’s conviction for the Wensley Lodge fire, it is difficult on the evidence presented by the Sunday Times to imagine how he could indeed have been responsible for this blaze. The picture of a youth with a spastic right arm cycling across Hull lugging a can of paraffin defies rational belief, but so do many other crimes and other equally unlikely events. (35)

Nowadays, if Lee were to be questioned (36) by the police, an “appropriate adult” would have to be present at all times. This is a safeguard not only for the suspect’s rights but for honest detectives, of which Sagar appears to have been one of the very few. Similar – and this time well founded – allegations to those laid against Sagar by the Sunday Times were made in the Confait case, of which Sagar could surely not have been unaware.

In April 1972, a homosexual prostitute and transvestite named Maxwell Confait was found murdered at his Catford home. Confait had a bizarre relationship with his landlord, who was the first suspect, (37) but by chance, three youths with a penchant for starting minor fires were dragged into the frame; Confait’s bedsit had been set on fire, so this was not entirely unnatural.

Colin Lattimore was eighteen years old but had a mental age of eight. (38) Fifteen year old Ronnie Leighton had an IQ of only 75; the third member of the trio, Ahmet Salih, was reasonably intelligent, but was only 14 at the time of the murder. (39)

All three were induced to confess to the killing, and all three were charged with murder, although the following month the murder charge against Salih was dropped and he was granted bail. The time of death was determined rather precisely; unfortunately for the prosecution, Lattimore had a water tight alibi, so at trial the Crown bizarrely set about discrediting its own forensic evidence! Lattimore was found guilty of manslaughter and nutted off; Leighton was convicted of murder; all three were convicted of arson with intent to endanger life.

The Confait defendants appealed; their first appeal was refused at the leave stage, but on October 17, 1975, their convictions were quashed. The Confait case led to an inquiry under Sir Henry Fisher, but needless to say this resulted in not one bent copper being brought to book. Indeed, the bent copper responsible principally for setting up these three saps sued successfully for libel. (40)

It may be though that some good finally came out of this and similar outrageous miscarriages of justice, because eventually statutory provisions were put in place to protect suspects of low intelligence, and others who are nowadays considered vulnerable. Prior to the Police And Criminal Evidence Act, 1984 (known universally as PACE) police interrogations were regulated by the Judges’ Rules. These were simply administrative directions and had no legal force. (41) Four such rules had been stated by 1912, these were increased to 9 in 1918, affirmed by a Home Office Circular and remained in force (for what it is worth) until 1964. (42) Any protection afforded a suspect by the Judges’ Rules was ex post facto. In theory, promises of bail, threats of withholding of bail, or bribing a suspect with cigarettes could be held sufficient to make a confession inadmissible, (43) though it remains to be seen how many innocent people actually benefited from such provisions. In 1964, Home Office Circular No. 31/1964, relating to children and young persons, was added to this inadequate package, but there was no provision for the questioning of the feeble-minded, and in view of the conviction of the Confait defendants, one is entitled to ask if the authorities were not more concerned with appearance than with substance when it came to protecting the rights of the young and the otherwise vulnerable.

Since PACE, the recording of police interrogations has greatly reduced the opportunities police officers have for verballing up and otherwise fitting up suspects.

None of this though applies to Satpal Ram. Although he was young when he murdered Clarke Pearce, he was legally an adult, and he was certainly not of low intelligence. Had he been arrested shortly after the murder, instead of eight days later when he surrendered to the police, he may well have been vulnerable, but this would only have been by virtue of his drunken state, and he would not have been questioned until he sobered up. In spite of the well documented propensity of police officers to lie, including under oath, to verbal up suspects, to suppress exculpatory evidence, and to gild the lily in even the most open and shut cases, at the end of the day, some suspects really are as guilty as Hell.

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