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Michael Mcmahon

Volume 941: debated on Wednesday 14 December 1977

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9.42 a.m.

I want to talk about the case of Michael McMahon, who is now in Long Lartin Prison and who was convicted of the murder of the Luton postmaster in 1970 along with Patrick Murphy and David Cooper. All three were sentenced to life imprisonment with a recommendation that they should serve a minimum period of 20 years before being considered for release on licence. They were convicted largely on the evidence of Mathews, who had originally been charged with the murder, but after a recommendation from Commander Drury, the officer in charge of the case, Mathews was allowed to turn Queen's evidence and the charges against him were dropped and he was set free. Mathews also received £2,000 reward money, again on Drury's recommendation.

The conviction of McMahon and the others turned on Mathews' evidence, corroborated at the time by selected eye witnesses whose evidence now appears to be suspect. Potential defence witnesses were either hidden from the defence or pressured into changing their evidence. No forensic evidence was given at the trial, although the police had taken samples of hair, saliva and so on and the police exhibits included cigarette butts.

Since that time, disturbing facts have come to light that were not known in 1970 but that have led to the release of Murphy in 1977, his conviction having been quashed. Murphy is now free, and Mathews obviously lied about his part in the murder. At the time all three asserted their innocence, and they have continued to do so. At the time of the trial, each refused an offer made by the prosecution to plead guilty to lesser charges in exchange for the charge of murder being dropped.

McMahon has been in prison for almost eight years. He has always insisted on his innocence and has worked to prove it. Every day in prison is taken up with that task. There is no point in offering him education or welfare services, because for him they are merely distractions from his aim. Of course, it is simply a waste of taxpayers' money to keep him in prison for murder on insufficient evidence.

Yesterday, an article in the Evening Post Echo produced some new evidence. James Humphreys, the one-time porn king, said that Mathews was
"instructed to organise the raid".
He said that Drury had told him that. Humphreys's story has never been brought before the courts. It is known to investigators from A10, but no action has ever been taken. Humphreys's claim is supported by the deal over the reward money with Mathews. He received a large reward. According to Humphreys, some of it was paid to Drury and later evidence which emerged at appeal court hearings substantiated that.

A second reward money deal took place, according to Michael Good, who once owned the shotgun that was used to kill the Luton postmaster. Good claims that after the original trial he was summoned to Scotland Yard. There Drury gave him a cheque for £500. He was taken to a bank by "his" detective, because he was a police informer and his detective was Falon. He cashed the cheque and gave the money to Falon. He assumed that he would give the money to Drury. So Drury recommended that the reward money should go to Mathews and Good, among others. Both were police informers, and Drury received at least some of the reward from them—again, according to Humphreys and Michael Good. Humphreys also claims that the Luton murder was a put-up job.

In what follows I shall suggest a possible interpretation of the events of September 1969. I do not claim to have substantial evidence for all I say, but I want to direct the attention of the House to these matters in the hope that substantial evidence may be forthcoming.

In the late spring and summer of 1969, armed robbers carried out a series of raids on North and North-East London sub-post offices and banks. Common features of the raids were a lack of planning and the use of violence. The police believed that one team was responsible.

According to Humphreys, the police decided to set up a special job to trap the team. Mathews was called in and told to make the arrangements. As the Evening Post Echo story has it, these arrangements went dramatically wrong. The officers who had primed Mathews became implicated in a murder. The investigation would have to be completed before anything leaked out, and Mathews may have fallen in with the plan to get himself off the hook.

Why, then, did Drury take part in the cover-up operation, if that is what he did? There is evidence—an investigation is in progress—that at least one senior officer, and possibly more, in the Flying Squad at that time was actively involved with top criminals. They set up and staged robberies and other crimes. The police arrested the petty criminals involved; the others were allowed to escape and the proceeds were shared between the criminals and the police. Many Flying Squad officers and divisional detectives associated with Drury in 1969 have since resigned or been required to resign.

The officers would have been known to Drury. Although at that time he was detective chief superintendent in the Serious Crimes Department at Scotland Yard, he had been with the Flying Squad for a year in 1955 and with the No. 9 Regional Crime Squad in 1965. In April 1971 he was made commander-in-chief of the Flying Squad. He was suspended in March 1972, he retired in May 1972, and now, of course, he is in prison on a corruption charge.

No reasons for Drury's resignation were given in May 1972. Between 1964 and 1969 he worked in Scotland Yard in close co-operation with the Flying Squad, and the officers of CI, his division, and the squad were well known to each other. It may well have been that Drury realised that there was more in the case than met the eye when he went to Luton in 1969. It was certainly a hasty investigation, perhaps because Drury was looking for Mathews from the start. Once he had found Mathews and Mathews turned Queen's evidence, it was not difficult to find McMahon and the others.

What Humphreys's statements provided, together with the interpretation that I have provided, is a reason for Mathews naming Murphy, Cooper and McMahon as his partners in the crime. He has already been proved to have lied about Murphy. If Mathews was involved with Drury in a cover-up operation, naming these three men makes sense. Three other culprits had to be found as quickly as possible, and McMahon and the others, who were well known to the police, were suitable choices.

Much more evidence has come to light since the 1970 trial—over 30 pieces in all. I shall not list all that evidence. Let me direct attention to one important piece of evidence which is now being investigated by the Home Office. This is a statement from one Richard Hurn. Hum provides McMahon with an alibi. On the afternoon on which the murder took place, Hum saw McMahon, with others, standing by a red Mercedes in London. Hum was talking to a friend of his, Frederick Lawrence. The first time when Hum saw McMahon was early afternoon; but Hum saw McMahon two hours later at roughly the time at which McMahon should have been in Luton if Mathews's story were true.

This evidence has come to light some years later. But Hum and Lawrence, between them, are able to identify the day in question because it was the day on which McMahon appeared in court in London, and so the date can be identified.

McMahon appeared in court early that afternoon and was alleged to have left quickly for Luton, in what the courts have always described as a carefully planned murder, in order to take part in the robbery later that afternoon.

The evidence for keeping McMahon in prison now seems to be thoroughly unsound. The more one looks at the case and at the number of statements that were taken from the witnesses for the prosecution before they finally provided the identifications which the prosecution wanted, the more one looks at Drury's involvement, the fact that Mathews received a large share of the reward money, and that Michael Good, for some extraorinary reason, received a share of the reward money as well, and the more one suspects a certain background to the case, the more one comes to the conclusion that this case stinks, that it is a waste of public money and that it is a gross injustice to keep this man in prison any longer.

The evidence on which McMahon was convicted is inadequate. The conviction is unsafe. Clearly, the Home Secretary cannot send this case back yet again to the courts for further consideration, but he should exercise the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to quash this conviction, because McMahon has suffered for too long in prison knowing that he is unjustly kept there.

9.55 a.m.

As I have metaphorically carried my bat throughout the debate, I should begin by asking for the leave of the House to speak again, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald), who has a constituency interest in this case, who with others has made a number of representations on the case that clearly concerns not only my hon. Friend but all those who have read the case. Without determining guilt or innocence, or even questioning the sentence of the court and its decision, it is obvious that the case is out of the ordinary run. Already during the case, wherever there were grounds to do so, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has taken appropriate action.

I start by explaining the general background. I believe that it is important to do so. There is a limit to what any Home Secretary can do in cases of this sort. First, I shall explain the functions of my right hon. Friend with regard to convictions and sentences imposed by the courts.

It is clear that under the constitution the proper authority for determining questions of guilt or innocence is the courts. The Home Secretary cannot reassess cases on the basis of evidence which has already been before the courts. He can intervene only if new considerations arise which have not previously been before a court—and even then it is desirable, whenever possible, for him to refer the case to the Court of Appeal under the provisions of Section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968. If for some reason—for example, if the new material does not amount to evidence which the Court of Appeal could properly receive and consider—this course is inappropriate, the Home Secretary may recommend the exercise of the Royal Prerogative. If the new considerations fall short of anything that would justify a free pardon but show grave and positive doubts about the conviction, he could remit sentence.

But action by the Home Secretary in any of these ways can be justified only if there are genuine new considerations which can be properly evaluated. The Home Secretary cannot act merely on the basis of rumours, suggestion or opinion, or on the opinion that my hon. Friend has quite properly brought in in interpretation. The Home Secretary could not act on his own opinion or own interpretation of the facts.

As this point is an important one and bears directly on what I have just said, I repeat a reply to a suggestion made before in Adjournment debates. The suggestion is that the criteria upon which the Home Secretary will intervene in the case of alleged wrong conviction were progressively relaxed by the previous Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, and have been tightened up again. I assure my hon. Friend that that is not the case. Although the form of words in letters may have been different, the criteria upon which these applications are made have been applied consistently by successive Home Secretaries for many years. They remain the same now as they were when the previous Home Secretary was in office. I have described the limitations on the Home Secretary's powers, but where it is proper the Home Secretary can take action. I think that Mr. McMahon's case illustrates the point.

As my hon. Friend told the House, Mr. McMahon, Mr. Cooper and another man, Mr. Murphy, were convicted in March 1970 of the murder of a sub-postmaster in Luton and were each sentenced to life imprisonment. They were convicted largely on the evidence of a Mr. Mathews, who, by his own admission, had taken part in the crime but who turned Queen's evidence. The three men applied to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal against their convictions, but in February 1971 their applications were refused by the full court. Subsequently, a statement was made by another man, Mr. Edwards, who purported to give Mr. Murphy an alibi for the time of the offence. Since this constituted new evidence within the definition that could properly be given in court, the previous Home Secretary referred Mr. Murphy's case to the Court of Appeal in May 1972.

The court, though expressing some reservations, decided that the new evidence cast doubt on Mr. Mathew's identification of Mr. Murphy, and that in the light of this the right course was to quash Mr. Murphy's conviction as being unsafe. This judgment immediately raised a similar question in relation to Mr. McMahon and Mr. Cooper, because it cast doubt on the validity of the evidence given against them as well. Accordingly, the former Home Secretary referred their cases to the Court of Appeal. On this occasion, when the court delivered judgment in February 1975, the appeals were dismissed, the court saying that if the jury at the trial had heard the evidence that had led to the quashing of Mr. Murphy's conviction they could well have found Mr. Murphy not guilty but Mr. McMahon and Mr. Cooper guilty. The court had examined various items of additional evidence but found that there was nothing to lead it to overturn the convictions, and it declined to have Mr. Mathews cross-examined on that occasion.

One of the complications, as my hon. Friend fairly said, is that Commander Drury is involved, and he was recently convicted of several offences. Mr. Humphreys, to whom my hon. Friend also referred, said during 1975 that Mr. Drury had told him that Mr. Mathews had been put in to set up the Luton raid. A statement by a new witness, a Mr. Slade, appeared to confirm the alibi which Mr. Cooper had sought to establish at the trial. In the light of these factors, the then Home Secretary again agreed to refer this new evidence to the Court of Appeal.

This matter is important not only because it is historic in the sense that it is the only time a case has twice been referred by the Home Secretary to the Court of Appeal but because on this occasion Mr. Mathews was allowed to be fully cross-examined, as was Commander Drury, and evidence on behalf of the accused was called. The case lasted several days, and at the end the court did not find the new alibi evidence credible and again refused to quash either man's conviction. It is important to realise that where the Home Secretary has new considerations that meet the criteria he acts as he acted in this case.

The judgment of the Court of Appeal resulted in a great deal of criticism in the Press, among the public and elsewhere. The criticism has been on the ground that it is scarcely credible that the court should have taken the view that, although Mr. Mathews's evidence on other aspects, particularly his own role, was inaccurate, there was no reason to doubt his evidence about Mr. McMahon and Mr. Cooper. But that is not a matter on which the Home Secretary could properly comment, far less act, because, as I keep on insisting, the independence of the judiciary means that it is not for the Home Secretary to substitute his own view for that of the Court of Appeal.

My hon. Friend said that on the second time the matter went to the Court of Appeal both Commander Drury and Mr. James Humphreys were cross-examined.

Have not matters moved on since then? Commander Drury was found not merely to be bent but positively crooked and was convicted of corruption—and that largely on the basis of evidence and testimony given by Mr. James Humphreys. Does not that give a new view of the whole essence and guts of the case?

I was not seeking to extrapolate past experience into the present situation. I was only describing the past, particularly the allowance of cross-examination of Mr. Mathews, the man whom my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock rightly made a central point of her speech. I was simply saying that on the second occasion he was cross-examined, as was Commander Drury, and that witnesses were called on behalf of Mr. Cooper and Mr. McMahon. It was not a paper-only exercise in the Court of Appeal. I was going on to deal with the up-to-date situation.

In November 1976, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Magee), to whom I also pay tribute for his close interest in the case, put into my right hon. Friend's possession detailed statements obtained by newspaper reporters and Mr. Cooper's solicitors, which, it was claimed, provided grounds for further action. Those statements were very carefully investigated by the police, but, as my right hon. Friend then told my hon. Friend, they provided no new grounds on which further action could be founded.

That illustrates the difficulty in the case. On investigation, all that we were left with was the unsupported statements of two men both of whom were unwilling to give evidence in court and whose statements in several respects contradicted each other and, where they were capable of verification, were found to be incorrect. I mention that only because of the difficulty that sometimes arises when apparently strong evidence is examined and dissolves very quickly.

In April this year, Mr. McMahon's solicitors forwarded evidence by a Mr. Richard Hurn which, together with evidence from another man, purported to provide Mr. McMahon with an alibi for the time of the murder. This, too, was investigated by the police, who submitted their report in July, but by that time my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton had submitted further material, so that as my right hon. Friend was on the point of coming to a decision on that he had to postpone it until he had examined the material which appeared in a television programme, because that raised not only the evidence referred to but new evidence.

Again, when delay is talked about I must point out that when there are masses of material relating to different aspects of a case which involves two men it inevitably takes a considerabe time adequately to investigate it.

The final police report on all the issues raised was received a few weeks ago, and after very careful consideration my right hon. Friend has now reached a decision. This has not been easy, because, as I said, Mr. Hurn's evidence referring to Mr. McMahon does not stand on its own; its relevance to the case depends on the evidence of another man, who had made a statement previously. The evidence of both men is based on their memories of events that occurred more than eight years ago, and the police inquiries were unable to produce anything to substantiate or rebut it. My right hon. Friend has therefore decided once again to seek the assistance of the Court of Appeal.

A case can be referred to the Court of Appeal in two ways under Section 17 of the Criminal Appeal Act 1968. Under subsection (1)(a) the Home Secretary can refer the whole case, and if he does so the case is treated for all purposes as if it were an appeal by the person concerned. Under subsection (1)(b), which is less frequently used, if the Home Secretary desires the assistance of the court on a specific point arising in the case he can refer that point alone to the court for its opinion on it.

As I have said, the cases of Mr. McMahon and Mr. Cooper have already twice been referred to the Court of Appeal. Consequently, with the men's original appeals against their convictions and the reference of Mr. Murphy's case, to which I referred earlier, the Court of Appeal has had on four occasions to consider the facts of the Luton murder, and it has done so exhaustively. It would therefore not be right to put it in the position of having to go into the whole matter yet again on the basis of evidence which, at the end of the day, it might feel unable to receive. It is not required to receive all evidence offered to it, but under Section 23(2) of the Criminal Appeal Act it is required—unless it is satisfied that, if received, it would not afford any ground for allowing the appeal—to receive any evidence that appears likely to be credible and would have been admissible in the proceedings from which the appeal lies and it is satisfied that there are good reasons why it was not adduced at the trial.

Accordingly, my right hon. Friend has decided, in the exceptional circumstances of this case, to exercise his power under Section 17 (1) (b) and to ask the Court of Appeal to give an opinion—if it feels able to do so—on the question whether, if the new evidence were tendered in the course of an appeal arising from a reference under subsection (1) (a), the court would regard itself as required to receive it by virtue of Section 23 (2) of the Act He will do this as soon as possible, and when he has received the court's opinion he will consider further the representations that he has received.

Despite the explanation that I gave earlier, it may be that my right hon Friend's decision will again be interpreted in some quarters as meaning that he considers Mr. McMahon and Mr. Cooper to have been wrongly convicted. I emphasise again that the reference of a case, or a point in a case, to the Court of Appeal means nothing of the sort. It means no more than that there is a new consideration of substance that has not previously been before a court and which the Home Secretary is satisfied should be considered by the Court of Appeal and which he can properly refer to it. Having said that, I assure my hon. Friend that, as his present action shows, my right hon. Friend fully appreciates the strength of feeling in this case.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House; immediately considered in Committee, pursuant to the Order of the House this day; reported, without amendment.

Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 93 ( Consolidated Fund Bills), and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.