The season of the snitch
The case of the Cohen brothers, and the failure thus far to rectify it, provides another illustration of how disturbing contemporary justice standards in the UK are: the evidence gets thinner, the sentences get longer, and the remedial measures gets slower.
One of the most recent cases to swell the Criminal Cases Review Commission’s reject pile is that of Ashley and David Cohen.
The brothers from Sheffield were convicted in April 2008 of the murder of taxi driver Younis Khan, who was killed by six gunshots fired from a car. The motive was supposed to have been a family feud involving the Cohens’ younger brother, Matthew, and a group that included Imran Khan, Younis’s son.
Ashley and David were sentenced to, respectively, terms of imprisonment of 33 and 31 years. In the summer of 2015, their case was turned down by the CCRC commissioner Andrew Rennison.
One might well imagine that in a case of such seriousness the evidence would have been very compelling indeed. In fact, it is virtually non-existent. At trial, David Cohen said that the difficulties with Imran Khan were amicably resolved, and he named the person whom locals believed responsible for the shooting. Moreover, the prosecution conceded that they had no information about who fired the shots that killed Khan.
So, instead, they resorted to that most disreputable category of evidence: the jailhouse snitch. After their arrest, the Cohen brothers were remanded into custody, where a prisoner named Vincent Simmons was soon frequenting their cell. He told them that he was an Oxford graduate who had an interest in their case; they showed him some case documents.
In fact, Simmons was a fraudster with a string of convictions for dishonesty.
The circumstances in which he encountered the Cohens are unusual. The brothers were remanded to Doncaster prison but, at the last moment, were not incarcerated there but taken instead to Armley prison in Leeds, where Simmons was. He told the authorities that he was suicidal and, as a Jew, needed companions of his own faith.
Defence lawyers believe this was a preposterous cover story to allow him access to the Cohens. After all, the idea that someone who needed counselling (that he could have obtained through the normal prison channels) should be accommodated with two men who, according to South Yorkshire police, had committed a firearms murder, is strange indeed. Nor, as it happened, were the Cohens even Jewish.
Simmons then said that the Cohens had indicated to him that they were involved in the killing. As soon as the police had his statement, two things happened: the Cohens were moved from Armley to Doncaster prison; and Simmons was released from custody. A prisoner saw him leaving in the back of a police car.
A month later, in March 2008, the prosecution called Simmons as a witness in the Cohen brothers trial and they were convicted largely on his evidence.
The following month, Simmons appeared in court himself. He had absconded from a previous imprisonment and fled to Israel, and was now facing charges for further offences committed while on the run. In those circumstances, he would have expected a heavy sentence. However, by remarkable good fortune, he received merely a suspended sentence.
The police then gave Simmons protected witness status, with a new home and identity.
Yet still he was not satisfied. After the trial, he telephoned both the Cohens’ mother, Pat Sharp, and also David’s partner, Lyndsey Carr, and offered a deal.
He said that he’d make a statement confirming that the trial evidence was ‘manufactured’ and that his evidence was ‘a lie’ so long as they deposited £100,000 in his bank account. (He provided his account number and bank sort code.)
Not surprisingly, neither Sharp nor Carr had £100,000 but they had taken the precaution of recording the calls. The transcripts were submitted to the CCRC.
Nevertheless, Rennison turned down the case, arguing that, ‘Simmons was known to be a dishonest man and his attempt to obtain a substantial sum of money in return for changing his testimony would be seen by the Court of Appeal as a continuation of his dishonest nature’.
This reasoning is baffling.
The prosecution had called Simmons at trial on the basis that he was a witness of truth giving evidence for the public good. (In any event, the Court of Appeal had quashed the original conviction of Michael Stone, for example, on the basis of retracted jailhouse snitch testimony.)
There is also another case to consider: the West Yorkshire case of Paul Maxwell and Danny Mansell. This was ultimately heard by the Supreme Court, whose judgment was delivered in July 2011.
Again, the prosecution relied in jailhouse snitch testimony, and a key point of legal argument concerned the inducements that the snitch was offered in return for his evidence.
After the conviction, reports in the Yorkshire Evening Post suggested that the police had set aside £100,000 for the snitch on his release from prison.
‘Those acting for the [imprisoned men] immediately sought clarification from the CPS’, Supreme Court judges explained, ‘but made little headway’. Fresh solicitors were then instructed and they made ‘extensive further inquiries’.
Responding to these, West Yorkshire police’s director of intelligence responsible for the management and use of informants, Detective Superintendent Andrew Rennison, told the solicitors, in a letter of 3 November 1999 that was made available to Court of Appeal judges, that ‘a reward of £10,000 was agreed by the police command team without discussion with [the snitch]’.
The Supreme Court commented that, ‘flatly contrary to senior officers’ evidence to the Court of Appeal, the police’s intention to reward [the snitch] had long since been communicated to him’.
An investigation carried out by North Yorkshire police under the supervision of the CCRC had, the Supreme Court continued, uncovered material that was ‘not just disturbing but quite frankly astonishing’.
They explained that ‘as a result of his cooperation with the police, [the snitch] and his family received a variety of benefits… Whilst in police custody [he] was at various times permitted to visit a brothel, to engage in sexual relations with a woman police constable, to visit public houses, to consume not merely alcohol but also cannabis and heroin, and to socialise at police officers’ homes’.
The snitch wrote about the brothel visits that the police arranged for him, saying, ‘I was drunk and stoned on weed, they paraded a dozen beautiful women in front of me and said “take your pick”.’
The Supreme Court judges commented that ‘a large number of police officers involved in the case, including several of very high rank, engaged in a prolonged, persistent and pervasive conspiracy to pervert the course of justice’.
They concluded that, ‘Scarcely less remarkable and deplorable than this catalogue of misconduct is the fact that… not a single one of the many police officers involved has since been disciplined or prosecuted’.
Far from it. At least one of those involved has since enjoyed a sparkling career.
Detective Superintendent Rennison went on to become the Forensic Science Regulator, prior to joining the CCRC as a commissioner – although his c.v. on the CCRC website curiously omits any reference to his important role with West Yorkshire police as director of intelligence responsible for the management and use of informants.
Justice campaigners may wonder how he came to be thought of as an ideal recruit for the CCRC and, more pertinently, why a former senior police officer who was named by the Supreme Court as having been involved in the misleading of the Court of Appeal about the handling of a jailhouse snitch should have been considered the most suitable commissioner to pass judgment on a case in the same area of the country involving police handling of a jailhouse snitch.
Private Eye, 1401, 18 September 2015
After a complaint from lawyers for the Cohen brothers, as well as the Private Eye report, the CCRC responded (30 September) that, ‘Mr Rennison has offered to step down from the case’.
They added that the case would be handed to a different commissioner ‘in due course’ and that renewed work on it would start ‘as soon as practicable’.