Young man deported for a murder he didn't even witness

On Friday February 17, Edward Conteh was put on a plane at Gatwick and flown to Belgium, deported as a convicted killer.

Conteh, 23, maintains he is innocent, that he did not kill 16-year-old Nicholas Pearton in 2011. The courts agree - it was never suggested Conteh played any active role in the crime, yet he was convicted of manslaughter, imprisoned for years and deported.

“It doesn’t seem right for them to send me away for something I didn’t do,” he said.

Also 16 at the time, Conteh was convicted using a controversial law known as joint enterprise, which allows prosecutors to scoop up groups of suspects and prosecute them for the same crime. 

The doctrine has been described as a “drift net” and critics warn it can lead to those on the periphery of a crime being unduly punished by association.

In February 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that the law had been “wrongly interpreted” for more than 30 years, in a landmark judgement that gave hope that some convictions could be appealed.

Following that ruling, Conteh’s lawyer Raja Rajeswaran Uruthiravinayagan said there was “a very good basis to say that our client may have been a victim of substantial injustice.” 

His case is being considered by the Criminal Case Review Commission, the first step towards getting his conviction appealed. But for Conteh that might be too late. 

His family, who are originally from Sierra Leone, have Belgian passports, so he was categorised as a foreign national prisoner.

That meant that once he had served his prison sentence he was moved straight to immigration detention. He was detained there for a year, let out of bail only to be picked up again. He spent a total of 17 months in immigration detention, until he was deported.

“I’m being punished for something I did not do,” Conteh told the Bureau. “I was young at the time, I was 16, and I’m still getting punished for it, it’s not fair. It makes me feel let down by the system and now by immigration authorities too.”

Three years ago his mother Memunatu was already worrying about what would happen if her son was deported. “When he goes they’ll give the Belgian police everything and tell them that Edward is a criminal,” she said. “And his family is all here, he doesn’t have anyone there, that can make someone go crazy.” 

The court accepted Conteh was not present at the murder

Foreign nationals caught in the drift net

Campaign group JENGbA (Joint Enterprise: Guilty by Association) are cataloguing more than 600 cases of joint enterprise. They say that many of those could be classed as foreign national prisoners, meaning deportation is likely.

Gloria Morrison, who founded JENGbA, explained she was worried that other people who could appeal their convictions might also be deported before they could process their claims through the courts.

“We’re really concerned that the Home Office will not address joint enterprise as a serious concern in terms of miscarriage of justice,” said Morrison.

“They will just say the convictions are safe and deport them. Our position is none of the convictions are safe because the law was wrong.”

She is concerned that now he is out of the country, Conteh and others like him will find it hard to appeal their convictions.

“Edward just wants his name cleared, he’s innocent,” said Morrison. “But we think it will be much harder now. The CCRC has such an overworked case load - they will probably just look at those already out of prison and those cases will go to the bottom of the pile.”

When asked if immigration officials would factor in joint enterprise appeals, a Home Office spokesperson said: "Foreign nationals who abuse our hospitality by committing crimes in the UK should be in no doubt of our determination to deport them and we have removed more than 33,000 foreign offenders since 2010.

"All those given a custodial sentence are considered for removal.”

Joint enterprise: A doctrine in flux

Joint enterprise, a legal doctrine introduced in the 18th century to discourage duels, allows for people to be convicted of a crime if they played a supporting role or could have foreseen the outcome. It has allowed for the conviction of criminal gangs, contract killers and even the murderers of Stephen Lawrence.

But the law has come under scrutiny in recent years. In 2014, the Justice Select Committee recommended an “urgent review” into the doctrine. Then in 2016, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling warning the use of the law had gone too far.

When it comes to new prosecutions, it appears those warnings have been heeded.

New data uncovered by the Bureau reveals that the rate at which joint enterprise is being used has slowed down.

Back in 2013 around 17% of all homicide prosecutions involved four or more defendants, according to our research. The latest figures, obtained through a Freedom of Information request, show that in 2016 that had dropped to just 13%.

But lawyers warn that the changes have not necessarily made it easier to appeal. 

A Court of Appeal ruling in October 2016 damped hopes by finding against two high-profile joint enterprise appeals. 

Solicitor Simon Natas has around 10 cases before the CCRC, but he has already had one case rejected. He warns that a Court of Appeal ruling in October has made it “very hard….by establishing a test for substantial injustice that is difficult to meet.”

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