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Secret report from 2003 showed South Wales Police accepted ‘corporate failure’ in miscarriage of justice cases

22 Feb 2024 9 minute read
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Martin Shipton

A secret report compiled by civilian investigators working for South Wales Police more than 20 years ago concluded that the force had exhibited “corporate failure” in its handling of cases where there had been miscarriages of justice.

The report, dated July 21 2003, has been leaked to Michael O’Brien, one of the Cardiff Newsagent Three, who spent 11 years in jail for a murder they didn’t commit.

Mr O’Brien, together with Darren Hall and Ellis Sherwood, had their convictions for murdering newsagent Phillip Saunders outside his Cardiff home in 1987 quashed by the Court of Appeal because of misconduct in the way police investigated the case.

The report was written as a briefing document for the then head of South Wales Police’s professional standards department. It was a response to a document produced by the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (MOJO) that argued for a public inquiry into the force.

Alleged irregularity

The South Wales Police report was divided into a number of sections, each of which highlighted a different type of alleged irregularity including fabrication of evidence; suppression of evidence; oppressive questioning; inducements; [failing to respect the rights of] vulnerable persons; breaches of procedure; abuse, assaults, threats; and criminal disciplinary investigations.

It concluded that while South Wales Police had conceded in the case of the Cardiff Newsagent Three that procedural deficiencies amounted to corporate failure, “other failings that may be attributable to corporate failure have been revealed amongst further cases that were analysed – the most obvious being in the investigation into the Lynette White murder [in which a Cardiff sex worker died from multiple stab wounds and three black men were originally wrongly convicted.

“Their convictions were quashed and later the real killer, a white man, was convicted as a result of advances in DNA technology and jailed for life]. The report identified poor murder incident room procedures and poor quality control arrangements, eg a failure to ensure all actions were satisfactorily completed and that statements were of the required standard. Also there was no evidence of planning or co-ordination of interviews.”

The report considered allegations relating to four kinds of fabrication: Incriminating statements that were allegedly not made (known as “verbals”) and/or the dishonest creation of false and unreliable evidence or manipulation of evidence; lying under cross-examination or in statements denying the existence of further dialogue – often social dialogue; planting of physical evidence and / or making false statements to induce confessions; and fictionalised accounts in notebooks.


In the case of Wayne and Paul Darvell, for example, who were wrongly convicted of the murder of Sandra Phillips at the Swansea sex shop she managed in 1985, the report states: “Entries made in the pocket notebooks of the interviewing officers were later found to have not been made contemporaneously and were in fact written long after they were claimed to have been completed. This emerged when it was discovered that the pocket books were not issued until long after the notes were allegedly made.”

The report stated: “The majority of the interviews in respect of these cases were undertaken without the benefit of audio recording and were therefore lacking the integrity that this innovation subsequently brought to the process.”

In terms of alleged suppression of evidence in the Cardiff Newsagent Three case, the report said: “O’Brien and Sherwood claim this occurred. In a statement made after the murder, a Kim Rumbelow, who lived near the scene, stated she had witnessed a person leaving the scene at about the time the attack on Mr Saunders occurred.

“This description did not fit any of the three defendants. It was alleged that [a named police officer] persuaded her to change her description of the person seen, to fit O’Brien or his co-accused. Furthermore a Sylvia Leech allegedly provided Sherwood with a potential alibi, yet this was omitted from her witness statement.”

Fingerprint evidence

In the Sandra Phillips murder case, suppression of evidence allegedly occurred in respect of the fingerprint evidence recovered from the murder scene. The fingerprint evidence was never disclosed to the defence and never pursued to conclusion. The report says that further investigative work would possibly have eliminated the Darvell brothers from complicity in the crime.

It adds: “Suppression of evidence may be linked to the fabrication of evidence and the aims of those who allegedly employed this tactic would be to obtain a result that may have otherwise not been achieved. Whilst this sort of behaviour cannot be completely prevented, it is less likely to occur owing to the tight rules of disclosure that now apply.”

All three defendants in the Phillip Saunders murder case alleged they were subject to interviewing over long periods, had psychological pressure exerted on them and were subjected to “auto suggestive questioning”, where it is implied that a particular answer should be given.

It was further claimed that the three defendants were subjected to improper physical and psychological pressure and this was aimed at making them confess / make admissions. Most notable amongst the allegations was that the three men were handcuffed to furniture – including hot radiators – within the police station. Additionally there were assertions that accused persons were pressured to implicate others. There were also claims that pressure was applied to witnesses to give false evidence.

‘Oppressive interviewing’

Comparable allegations were made in other cases, and the report said: “The judgement of the difference between oppression and robust interviewing will be subjective. Notwithstanding this, it should be conceded that in the past, oppressive interviewing occurred not infrequently and that this may have been part of the culture that previously existed within the police service.

“Since the early 1990s the South Wales Police has invested in training in investigative interviewing, introduced interview coordinators and PACE (Police and Criminal Evidence Act) advisers. In addition there is now training and accreditation for Senior Investigating Officers. Finally the force has a policy to monitor interviews, which if adhered to, should reduce, if not eliminate, the likelihood of a recurrence of oppressive interviewing in future investigations.”

The report states that in the Lynette White murder investigation, audio tapes of the police interviews revealed that false and misleading statements were provided to defendants John Actie and Yusef Abdullahi, by police officers. It said: “This was in relation to the evidence available to the investigating officers. Whether this was deliberate, or in error cannot be established. There must be some suspicion, however, that this may have been done to encourage the defendants to make statements they would not otherwise have made.

“There were also assertions, made by various witnesses, that pressure was applied to get them to change their statements. Whilst some of these witnesses may be deemed to be unreliable, others – who only had contact with Abdullahi through the ship, Coral Sea – may, in all probability, be deemed credible in their claims of police malpractice.

“Anecdotal evidence would suggest that this sort of behaviour was endemic in the police culture, throughout England and Wales, before PACE, and in the early years after this legislation was enacted. It is contested that with proactive supervision, combined with better education and training, this type of alleged malpractice is almost non existent today.”

The report included reference to an earlier report leaked to Mr O’Brien in which it was stated that John Smith, a retired detective superintendent from Devon and Cornwall Police, had revealed his suspicions that the acquitted Cardiff Newsagent Three may actually have been involved in this crime. Mr O’Brien, who has always maintained his innocence, was paid significant compensation for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment, and later received an apology from South Wales Police’s Chief Constable. He was angered to learn of the existence of Mr Smith’s review of the case, and is taking legal steps in a bid to force its disclosure to him.

The more recent 2003 report leaked to Mr O’Brien nevertheless concluded that there had been “corporate failure” with “procedural deficiencies” in the Cardiff Newsagent Three case.


It added: “Other failings that may be attributable to corporate failure, have been revealed amongst further cases that were analysed. The most obvious being in the investigation into the Lynette White murder.”

Deficiencies identified included poor murder incident room procedures and poor quality control arrangements, for example failure to ensure all actions were satisfactorily completed and that statements were of the required standard. Also there was no evidence of planning or co-ordination of interviews. There was also adverse comment from the Independent Advisory Group, that there was poor handling, processing and storage of vital documentation. This failing featured in the analysis of other cases too.

The report concluded: “Those calling for a public inquiry will undoubtedly still seek to link these cases with the 1988 investigation into the murder of Lynette White. While impropriety was identified in a number of the cases analysed, legislative and procedural changes will have eliminated or at the very least have reduced the opportunities for similar alleged malpractices to occur in the future.”

Mr O’Brien said: “This latest leaked report is an uneasy mixture of allegations and admissions by those who wrote it that serious mistakes were made. In my view, the fact that it has come to light strengthens the case for a judicial inquiry into the multiple miscarriage of justice cases involving South Wales Police.”

In 2021 Assistant Chief Constable Dave Thorne said in response to the publication of a book by Mr O’Brien: “South Wales Police is committed to learning from mistakes and improving its service to victims. The cases referred to in this book have been subjected to much public and independent scrutiny. We have used the lessons from this scrutiny to drive change and transform the way we carry out major investigations.

“In fact, we have led the way on improving and professionalising investigative practice and have become a leading force in major crime investigation review. For example, our learning around the challenges of disclosure in the criminal justice system have led to recognised good practice that has been shared nationally.

“We do not forget those who have been affected by these miscarriages of justice and we do not underestimate the impact this has had on individuals. This knowledge of this impact has strengthened our determination to drive up the force’s investigative standards.”

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Leigh Richards
Leigh Richards
1 month ago

This force has been involved with so many miscarriage of justice cases down the years (and possible miscarriages of justice). 6 police forces in England have been placed in special measures because of their serious failings – there’s a very strong case for the same to happen with South Wales Police (or for it to be even disbanded altogether and merged with another force in Wales). Does Wales really need 4 police forces? Scotland has only got one

Last edited 1 month ago by Leigh Richards

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