Scrutinising government

The supergrass deals that slash life sentences for murder to just three years

Prisonbreakout

Escaping prison bars. Supergrasses get immunity or huge discounts to their sentences. (image: Shutterstock.com)

Murderers, armed gangsters and international drug dealers are among the serious offenders having their time in prison cut by up to 90% in return for turning ‘supergrass’, an investigation by the Bureau for the BBC’s Panorama has found.

Such rewards have been given despite the fact that on a number of occasions, the informer’s reliability has been questioned in court.

In one case, in February 2012, life sentences for two murderers were reduced to just three years in return for information, despite their testimony being branded by the judge as ‘infected with lies’.

In another, a minimum 18-year jail term for murder was cut to eight years, though the jury did not believe the supergrass, and failed to convict.

And in a third instance in 2007, a major cocaine dealer’s sentence was reduced from 17 years to five, despite the case in which he was due to give evidence collapsing before he took the stand.

Panorama and the Bureau also uncovered a 2011 case in which four defendants in a narcotics ring signed supergrass agreements, achieving a combined total of more than 25 years’ discount. Again, the witnesses never testified because the prosecution dropped the case, yet the four retained substantial reductions.

The revelations raise serious concerns about some of the deals being done with some of Britain’s most serious criminals under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 (Socpa).

Speaking to Panorama, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) stated that informers’ jail terms would be cut by more than two thirds only in a ‘very exceptional case’, always following guidance issued by the judge in leading supergrass trials. The CPS stressed that the extent of the sentence discounts was left to the discretion of the judge, and prosecutors could not promise offenders that their jail terms would be cut.

In February 2012, life sentences for two murderers were reduced to just three years in return for information, despite their testimony being branded by the judge as ‘infected with lies’.

Yet despite judicial guidance, in 49 cases involving supergrasses analysed by the Bureau, nearly half of the supergrasses’ jail terms were cut by more than two thirds. In over a quarter of cases, offenders received a discount of more than 80% on time in prison. In most cases the informants had pleaded guilty to very serious crimes.

A controversial system
The use of supergrasses has always been controversial. In the early 1980s, the system was largely discredited when evidence surfaced that both informants and the police had abused the system, resulting in wrongful convictions and serious offenders getting off lightly.

But informers are seen as a necessary tool in the fight against organised crime. In a move aimed at improving the system by increasing transparency, and enhancing ‘the credibility of the testimony’, so-called ‘supergrass’ deals were formalised as part of Socpa.

Under the Act, informers can receive total or partial immunity from prosecution. Sentence reductions are seen as a crucial way to encourage offenders to break the criminal code and give evidence.

Classed as ‘vulnerable witnesses’, informers may also be given new homes and identities when they leave prison. Taxpayer-funded protection can amount to more than £500,000.

The Panorama investigation found successes. For example, a teenage gang member – boy ‘X’ – gave crucial evidence against gunman Sean Mercer in the murder of schoolboy Rhys Jones. The evidence was judged to be so important that boy X was given full immunity from prosecution under Socpa for his role in helping to hide the murder weapon after the killing.

And other victims’ relatives have spoken out in support of the deals, with the sister of one victim telling Panorama that whilst it was ‘hard at first’, it was a necessary sacrifice in order to convict a key perpetrator.

Related story: The return of the Supergrass

However, the recent collapse of a number of high profile Socpa cases has led to doubts that the new system really improves on the old and one of the key problems, say critics, is that vast, unprecedented sentence reductions give offenders a huge incentive to manipulate the justice system.

Leading QC Michael Mansfield said that supergrasses are ‘inherently dishonest’ witnesses acting in ‘self-interest because they want some kind of reward’, and are sure to be enticed by the discounts on offer:

‘Reductions for example from 27 years down to three, now that seems to me to be the sort of carrot that most people would bite at.

‘These people will know about crime, but in order to inveigle their way into their favours they dress it up. They dress it up in a way that they put people at the scene who weren’t there… and of course they have axes to grind, they have vendettas to settle,’ he said.

Reductions for example from 27 years down to three, now that seems to me to be the sort of carrot that most people would bite at.
Michael Mansfield QC

Sentences slashed
The CPS revealed that 175 supergrass deals were signed between January 2006 and April 2012. In 156 of these cases, offenders received reduced sentences.

In 19 cases, offenders received total, or partial immunity from prosecution.

The CPS will not disclose details of the cases, however, the Bureau has independently found and analysed 49 cases, which took place across the six years that the Act has been in force.

Related article: The data – Sentence reductions under Socpa

Two of the 49 involve full immunity, while in 47 cases the offenders had their jail terms slashed.

In one of the first cases under the system, the court outlined that sentence reductions should generally be between one-half and two-thirds. In that case, a getaway driver – Derek Blackburn – gave evidence against two men who gunned down gangland rival David ‘Noddy’ Rice in a seafront car park in South Shields, South Tyneside.

Blackburn himself received a much larger discount – 79%. This was justified on appeal by virtue of the fact that Blackburn provided information that led to a number of convictions, and because he was on the periphery of the crime. His 12 year sentence was reduced to two years six months.

Of the 47 Socpa agreements identified where jail terms were cut, 45% have reductions of more than two-thirds, 13 of the 47 had over 80% knocked off their time in prison.

You may think that if he had been in the dock you would have been asking whether he was guilty of murder.
Trial judge Langstaff

But unlike Blackburn, in some cases the supergrass appears to be at the centre, rather than the periphery of the offence.

In one case involving the 2007 murder of Edward ‘Teddy’ Simpson in Bradford, Socpa witness Sonny Stewart implicated eight people, including himself, in the killing. In a highly unusual move, Stewart had his charge, rather than sentence, reduced. Under the deal he pleaded guilty to manslaughter, not murder and this resulted in a life sentence, with potentially a 35-year minimum term, being substituted for a maximum seven years.

Trial judge Langstaff told Stewart that he was ‘lucky’ to have signed a Socpa agreement, and warned the jury: ‘You may think that if he had been in the dock you would have been asking whether he was guilty of murder.’

As revealed by Panorama, this case has now been passed to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which is considering evidence that Stewart may have been a main perpetrator.

Ben Nolan QC, leading the appeal to the CCRC, told Panorama that he could see little justification for Stewart’s deal: ‘If there has been a potential miscarriage of justice, and moreover, a violent murderer is now free after spending a very short period in prison; it’s very difficult to see what the public interest has been.’

Related article: A case to answer – The miscarriages of justice that have involved prison informants

High-profile failure
In one of the most high-profile failures of the Socpa system, Belfast brothers Robert and Ian Stewart agreed to give evidence against 14 paramilitaries who they alleged had organised and carried out the murder of rival Tommy English in October 2000.

The brothers admitted 120 offences between them, including aiding and abetting the murder of Mr. English, multiple serious assaults, arson, and extortion. A Socpa agreement resulted in their 22 year-minimum sentences being slashed to just three years.

If there has been a potential miscarriage of justice, and moreover, a violent murderer is now free after spending a very short period in prison; it’s very difficult to see what the public interest has been.
Ben Nolan QC

However, in February 2012, the judge Mr Justice Gillen acquitted 13 of the 14 men, deeming the brothers’ testimony ‘so flawed and unreliable’ that he was unable to convict. He said that their stories were ‘infected with lies’, that they wrongly implicated people, and gave confused and contradictory evidence.

The man who was convicted was the only individual that the Stewarts did not provide evidence against.

Thought to have cost up to £20m, this case was so serious that the Northern Ireland Public Prosecutions Service is currently considering whether to revoke the Stewarts’ sentence discounts: an unprecedented move.

CPS spokesperson Alison Levitt defended Socpa deals saying they ‘may sometimes be the only way to convicting very serious people’.

‘There are some extremely serious criminals who are now serving very long sentences as a result of these kinds of agreements,’ she told Panorama.

The BBC Panorama’s Return of the Supergrass is on BBC1 on October 8 at 20.30.