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Murder of Maxwell Confait

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Maxwell Confait, known as Michelle to his friends, was a 26-year-old who was found murdered in southeast London in 1972. The investigation into Confait's death and the convictions of three youths based on false confessions raised questions about police procedures and caused a major review in how police treated suspects, particularly children and "the educationally subnormal."

Incident

The London Fire Brigade was called to 27 Doggett Road, Catford, in southeast London, England, at 1:21 am on 22 April 1972. One of the firefighters found a body of a mixed-race person in an upstairs back bedroom of the house behind a locked door. The fire was extinguished by 1:31 a.m., the Metropolitan Police arrived at 1:45 a.m., followed by a forensic pathologist at 2:00 a.m.
The body was that of lodger Maxwell Confait, know to friends as Michelle. Confait was a transvestite and sex worker.
Confait's lips were blue and there were marks where he had been strangled with a rope or cord. Later, a lamp was discovered in a cupboard under the stairs and the cord in the dressing table drawer of the room where the body had been discovered. The police surgeon found the cause of death to have been asphyxia.
The police surgeon did not take the rectal temperature to establish the time of death because the senior policeman had noted that Confait was a "possible homosexual" and he did not wish to destroy any evidence of recent sexual activity.

Investigation

The home where the body was found was that of Confait's landlord, Winston Goode. The two had first met in a public house in Lewisham in 1970, shortly after Goode had separated from his wife. The two reportedly shared a habit of wearing women's clothes and in 1972, Confait rented a room at Goode's house.
Goode was considered a suspect in Confait's murder in the initial police investigation. During police interviews, Goode mentioned that he knew Confait planned to move out of the home. He admitted to being jealous but denied any homosexual relationship.
Days later, Goode was admitted to Bexley Psychiatric Hospital in a confused and traumatized state. Later, he committed suicide by swallowing cyanide.

Arson and arrests of Lattimore, Leighton and Salih

Two days after the discovery of Confait's body, on April 24, 1972, there were a number of fires in the area, including alongside the railway line near Catford Bridge railway station, in a small sports hut on Ladywell Fields, and a house in the next street, 1 Nelgarde Road.
The police apprehended an eighteen-year-old man, Colin Lattimore. Lattimore admitted to lighting the fire at Doggett Road with his friend, Ronnie Leighton, aged 15, and 14-year-old Ahmet Salih. Both were arrested. Later, Lattimore's brother said the man had severe learning disabilities and could neither read nor write.
All three of the boys were questioned without any other adult being present, despite laws stipulating that "As far as practicable, children (whether suspected of a crime or not) should only be interviewed in the presence of a parent or guardian, or, in their absence, some person who is not a police officer and is of the same sex as the child".
During the interrogations, Lattimore and Salih both admitted to starting the fire at the Doggett Road home. Lattimore also admitted to the murder of Maxwell Confait.
All the boys said they had been the victims of police violence.

Trial and Convictions

By 25 April 1972, just three days after the murder, the police considered the case solved.
After a preliminary hearing at Woolwich Magistrates Court, Lattimore and Leighton were sent to Ashford Remand Centre on charges of murder. Salih was charged with arson but was released on police bail.
The families of the three boys and their legal representatives pointed out that all three boys had alibis for when the police surgeon and the pathologist had estimated Confait's death to have occurred.
In court, the pathologist, Professor James Cameron, changed his opinion concerning the time of death, saying it could have been as late as 1:00 a.m. and that the heat of the fire could have sped up the onset of rigor mortis.
On 11 November 1972, the jury found Colin Lattimore guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility and two counts of arson for the fire at Doggett Road and Ladywell Fields. He was ordered to be detained indefinitely under the Mental Health Act 1959 and was sent to Rampton Hospital in Nottinghamshire.
Ronnie Leighton was found guilty of murder, arson at Doggett Road and Ladywell Fields, and also of a burglary at a nearby address. He was sent to Aylesbury Prison for a life sentence.
Ahmet Salih was found guilty of the same offenses as Ronnie Leighton, but was sent to the Royal Philanthropic School in Redhill for a four-year sentence due to his age.
On 26 July 1973, the Court of Appeal rejected an appeal by the boys' legal representatives.

Appeal and exonerations

Colin Lattimore's father, insistent that his son was innocent, wrote many letters, including to the Queen, Prime Minister and Home Secretary. His Member of Parliament, Carol Johnson, MP, wrote to the Home Office.
Meanwhile, the General Election of February 1974 brought Roy Jenkins and Alex Lyon, both of whom were committed to reviewing miscarriages of justice, into the Home Office. The new Member of Parliament for Lewisham was Christopher Price, MP, who had been working for Thames Television and became Principal of Leeds Metropolitan University after leaving Parliament.
The National Council for Civil Liberties had also become interested in the case and, with Price, contacted one of the leading pathologists in the country, Professor Donald Teare.
A 30-minute documentary about this case was made for Thames Television during which Teare placed Maxwell Confait's death between 6:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Another contemporary pathologist, Professor Keith Simpson, was brought in, and he broadly agreed with Professor Teare.
During the spring of 1974, the Lord Chief Justice Lord Widgery gave his opinion that this case could properly be referred back to the Court of Appeal. On 18 June 1975, Roy Jenkins announced in Parliament that he was referring the case to the Appeal Court.
On Oct. 17, 1975, the convictions of all three boys were thrown out by the Court of Appeal.
Lord Scarman criticized the police for their handling of the case and declared all three of the young men "innocent" in his final verdict.
The Home Secretary then ordered a further police enquiry into Confait's murder under Peter Fryer. He made no arrests and the case remained unsolved.

Fischer Enquiry and Report

After the acquittals by the Appeal Court, Jenkins ordered a full enquiry chaired by Sir Henry "Harry" Fisher. His primary mission was to make recommendations about the Judges' Rules stipulating how police should treat suspects, particularly children and "the educationally subnormal," which were found to be "palpably in need of review."
Fischer accepted the chairmanship on condition that he should also be free to find any individual guilty of the crime on "the balance of probabilities," which is the civil standard of legal proof in the UK. In spite of opposition from some civil servants, he was allowed to proceed on this basis.
In his report, Fischer rejected the defendants' accusations of police brutality and stated that two of the exonerated defendants in the Confait murder were "guilty on balance of probability," although they had been exonerated. Because this statement was potentially libelous, the report was, exceptionally, published as a "Return to the House of Commons," which made it immune from litigation in the courts of justice.
However, Fischer's report also found that the police had "to all intents and purposes all but closed down the investigation" into Confait's murder after the boys' confessions and pointed out procedural issues with the investigation and protection of the suspects' rights.
In the report, Fischer pointed out that his enquiry was limited and could not create "fundamental changes in the law relating to police investigation and criminal protection," remarking that a Royal Commission would be needed to create such reform.
In August 1980, Sir Michael Havers prepared a statement to Parliament declaring the three young men innocent. When he sent for Fisher asking him to concur with this statement, Fisher refused to do so.
After Fischer's death, Louis Blom-Cooper, who had represented the three young men, wrote to The Independent seeking to correct a flurry of obituaries that described Fischer as exonerating the boys.
"Commendably, Harry Fisher never sought to defend his findings to me," wrote Blom-Cooper, "He acknowledged, by implication, that he had got egg on his face."

Royal Commission of Criminal Procedure and changes to British law

Fisher's conclusions, and other high-profile cases of misconduct, led to the Royal Commission of Criminal Procedure (1979–1981). The Commission examined and made recommendations for policy change regarding the powers and duties of the police in respect of the investigation of criminal offences, the rights of suspects, and the responsibility for the prosecution of criminal offences. The commission held 50 full meetings, beginning in 1978 and the final report was published in 1981.
After the report was published, Patrick Mayhew described the current state of British Law, absent reform, as harming both police and suspects. In a statement in the House of Commons in 1981, Mayhew said: "Both the police and the suspect are hampered by this state of affairs—the police because they may be obliged to operate in areas of doubtful or ambiguous legal authority and the suspect because his rights at any particular moment may be so unclear that he lacks any proper or practical legal protection."
As a result of increased attention to police procedure, the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 were passed on a bipartisan basis, as well as the establishment of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Resolution of the murder of Confait

On 20 February 1980, Detective Chief Superintendent E.J. George and Inspector E. Ellison presented a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions identifying Douglas Franklin as Confait's murderer and Paul Pooley as a witness to the murder.
The report concluded that the time of death estimated by both prosecution and defense experts were all wrong, as they had assumed that rigor mortis was commencing at the time of the discovery of the fire. In fact, later evidence showed that Confait had been dead for over 48 hours and rigor mortis was wearing off. Two eminent forensic pathologists, Professors Alan Usher and Keith Mant, confirmed this conclusion, stressing that the discoloration of the organs of the body at the post-mortem indicated 72 hours had passed since death.
George and Ellison's report also noted that it was likely that Douglas Franklin "would have emerged at an early stage as a major suspect" if the three boys had not been arrested and police assured they were guilty.
Shortly after being interviewed by George and Ellison, Franklin committed suicide.

In popular culture

In October 2019, the case was examined in the BBC Two programme Catching Britain's Killers: The Crimes That Changed Us.
  • Price, Christopher and Caplan, Jonathan (1977); The Confait Confessions; Marion Boyars Publishers, London; .
  • External links

    • Report of an inquiry into the death of Maxwell Confait - Full Text
    • The new injustices

    Category:1972 murders in the United Kingdom
    Category:1972 in London
    Category:History of the London Borough of Lewisham
    Category:Murder in London
    Category:Catford
    Category:April 1972 events in the United Kingdom
     
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