Undercover police operations spanning decades may have led to wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice, the Home Secretary has warned, in the wake of “profoundly shocking” findings of a review of the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation.
Theresa May announced a judge-led public inquiry into the work of covert police and Scotland Yard’s Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) – a top secret unit that was up and running for nearly 40 years.
Police moles fell under the glare of the review, conducted by Mark Ellison, QC, after a former SDS officer, Peter Francis, claimed he had been deployed undercover from September 1993 and tasked to “smear” the Lawrence family campaign.
In his report, Mr Ellison, who successfully prosecuted Gary Dobson and David Norris for Stephen’s murder in 2012, found an SDS “spy” had been working within the “Lawrence family camp” during the judicial inquiry led by Sir William Macpherson into Stephen’s death in the late 1990s.
Stephen’s mother, Baroness Doreen Lawrence, fought back tears in the House of Lords as she said her family had endured “21 years of struggle” and there was “still more to come”, following the most recent disclosures.
Later yesterday, detectives investigating wider allegations against undercover police and the SDS said three officers – including at least one understood to still be serving – could face criminal charges over claims they slept with women they spied on.
The Home Secretary said SDS officers’ actions – such as failing to reveal their true identities to court or correct evidence they knew was wrong – meant there was “real potential for miscarriages of justice”.
Mrs May has commissioned Mr Ellison, along with the Crown Prosecution Service and the Attorney General, to conduct a further review into cases impacted by the SDS and has launched a wider public inquiry into undercover policing and the actions of the squad.
“In particular, Ellison says there is an inevitable potential for SDS officers to have been viewed by those they infiltrated as encouraging, and participating in, criminal behaviour,” the Home Secretary said. “We must therefore establish if there have been miscarriages of justice.”
Mrs May also announced she would bring in new legislation to create a specific offence of police corruption, to replace the current “outdated” misconduct in public office.
Mr Ellison flagged up the implications of his findings on the SDS – namely the way in which it operated could have tainted criminal proceedings. He said the nature of undercover work put officers inside groups of activists who came into conflict with police and faced arrest.
“Having a system whereby that activity was shrouded in almost total secrecy and the role of, and intelligence gained by, the undercover officer was not considered in relation to the prosecution’s duty of disclosure in criminal proceedings must, in our assessment, produce the potential for there to have been unfairness in some of those proceedings,” he said.
In Stephen’s murder investigation, the undercover officer in question was found to have held a meeting with acting detective inspector Richard Walton, who had been seconded to Scotland Yard’s Lawrence review team.
Stephen, 18, was stabbed in an unprovoked attack by a gang of white youths in April 1993 in London. In 2012, Dobson and Norris were convicted of murder.
Mr Ellison found there was evidence to suspect one of the detectives on the original murder investigation – Detective Sergeant John Davidson – had acted corruptly.