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Contract Killings


Saturday, 5 July 2008

Emergency legislation to prevent the collapse of dozens of murder convictions that depended on anonymous witnesses will be announced within days.

Emergency legislation to prevent the collapse of dozens of murder convictions that depended on anonymous witnesses will be announced within days.Preparations for most murder cases were put on hold last night as ministers scrambled to change the law to allow the use of witnesses too frightened to give their names in court.
New rules – enabling anonymous witnesses to appear in court behind screens or via video links – are being drawn up and will be rushed through Parliament in four weeks.
The crisis follows a judgement by the law lords last week that it was a fundamental principle of English law that a defendant should be able to know his accuser to be able to challenge their evidence.The ruling led to a judge at the Old Bailey yesterday halting the £6m trial of two men accused of murder. Police suggested last night that 40 murder convictions in London alone had depended heavily on anonymous evidence and the number nationwide could exceed 100.Ministers are desperate to avoid a deluge of appeals against convictions in high-profile gangland killings. Whitehall sources added, however, that a relatively small number of convictions wholly relied on anonymous evidence.Lawyers for two of the four men found guilty of killing the Birmingham teenagers Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare said last night they planned to challenge the guilty verdicts.
Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, met senior Tory and Liberal Democrat spokesmen to negotiate parliamentary time for hastily-planned legislation. As government officials started work on the measure, Mr Straw described the issue as his top priority.Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, speaking at a meeting of senior police officers in Liverpool, said she shared their frustration. She said: "This is something we are looking at very urgently including, if necessary, looking at whether we can change the law. I certainly accept, and I said some time ago, that there is a problem here that we need to solve."The implications of the Lords' ruling were thrown into stark relief at the Old Bailey when Judge David Paget told the jury that the two-month case had been "derailed" by the decision. He explained: "You have heard evidence from a number of witnesses that you should not have heard."
Douglas Johnson, 27, and David Austin, 41, will be retried over the alleged contract killing of an east London businessman, Charles Butler, 50, next year.
Ravi Sukul, a defence lawyer in the case, welcomed the move, arguing that anonymity put defendants at a "serious disadvantage".He said: "They were never in a position to investigate the character of those witnesses to establish, for example, whether they are credible witnesses, whether their evidence ought to be believed. The bottom line is, in my opinion, that fairness has prevailed."Growing numbers of murder prosecutions have used anonymous witnesses, who were allowed to give evidence through screens, adopt false names and disguise their voices.
Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick, head of New Scotland Yard's Counter Terrorism Command, called for urgent government action. He said: "The implications for the fight against organised crime and terrorism are very serious. We urgently need this redressed, by legislation if necessary.
"It is catastrophic. There is too much principle and not enough pragmatism in the criminal justice system."

Ken Jones, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said anonymity had become a vital tool in difficult prosecutions.
He said: "Anonymity has been used in a tiny, tiny minority of cases and the fundamental principle that you are entitled to hear from your accuser has not been breached. These powers are used only in rare and exceptional circumstances – the judiciary have supported them for a long time and there are rigorous checks and balances."
The Crown Prosecution Service said the number of cases which would be affected by the ruling was not known. A spokeswoman said: "We have asked our prosecutors to seek an adjournment on all cases using anonymous witnesses to allow us to assess the implications of the judgment."
Nick Herbert, shadow Justice Secretary, said he shared police concern. "The public must be protected from the most violent criminals. We are already discussing these issues constructively with the Government."

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